We have the records of only a few contemporary reactions to Henry Dawson's surprise decision to dramatically kick-start The Age of Antibiotics, 12 years after it should have begun but three months before it was scheduled to begin , but they are suggestive.
Gladys Hobby, his assistant, entered the Meyer-Hobby penicillin project a few weeks into it, after taking a late summer vacation.
She returned, she told penicillin author Leonard Bickel just 20 years later, to "an air of excitement filling the Dawson-Meyer lab" , Dawson had "immediately begun to work on this new project" and she "was at once caught up in his eager search".
Dawson was willing to wait "only eight days" after Meyer began purifying his first ever brew of penicillin before, "full of excitement" he injected this just-begun-being-purified material into two dying patients .
One patient died, one went home cured - Dawson refused to credit his small amount of "extremely low potency" penicillin with this cure, but he was "heartened" by the "low toxicity" of this "extremely crude" preparation. "No serious toxic effects observed."
Hobby later wrote in her own book on penicillin, that Dawson had "recognized immediately that penicillin .... might be effective in the treatment of ...subacute bacterial endocarditis in particular". The product used on October 16th 1940, she admits, was "crude" , "slightly purified (concentrated)" , even "extremely crude" .
At first, only the "low toxicity" of the "crude and impure" penicillin was noteworthy , not its curing ability.
On May 5th 1941, Dawson addressed hundreds of the world's top research doctors in Atlantic City, an event traditionally well covered by the popular media.
So we learn - via the New York Time's famous Atomic Bill Lawrence that Dawson admitted to the audience that despite his "crude" penicillin not being "pure", "no serious toxic effects were observed."
Via science journalist Steven Spencer, writing in America's largest evening paper, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, we learn that Dawson said that his penicillin was not toxic even when given in doses far beyond those dosages needed to clear up infections -- a distinct advantage over the sulfas, which are toxic to some people."
He said, reports Spencer, that penicillin had "unlimited possibilities."
Finally, an opponent of Dawson, Stanhope Bayne-Jones tells Howard Florey in strict confidence in July 1941, that Dawson is "quite honest" but "uncritically enthusiastic" .
I think I have demonstrated what was Dawson's key insight into penicillin, the insight that drove his excitement and his passion.
It was that he realized that even a crude mix of hospital-made natural penicillin with all its natural impurities still in it was both potent AND non toxic (in fact more potent and much less toxic than drug-company-made PURE sulfa drugs).
So morally, a doctor could not wait for 100% pure natural penicillin or for 100% pure synthetic penicillin, before starting to use penicillin to save the dying by systemic injections.
He had discovered unrefined natural penicillin's big secret....
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