Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Nova Scotia-born Dr Henry Dawson and the wartime re-invention of a military secret weapon into a widely publicized beacon of hope

I am talking about penicillin of course.

What other artifact of war has so abruptly and so totally changed its character over the course of a war ?
In 1941, the British and American medical and military elites were in agreement that the new penicillin's best use in wartime was as a weapon - and that its success as a weapon of war depended on it remaining 'new' and hence relatively secret.

The Allies would gain an absolute advantage over the Axis only if they alone had a cheap, abundant, stable, pure , potent (secret) version of penicillin.

This could only happen if the Axis had to make do with only the increasingly ineffective sulfa drugs or the expensive, scarce, unstable, weak Public Domain (natural) version of penicillin, readily obtainable by consulting the already existing published medical literature on penicillin.

Why was penicillin so secret one moment and then the hero of newsreels the next ?

So penicillin had to remain secret in two senses.

 First, penicillin had to be synthesized secretly.

This is because the old cliche of the formula stolen out of a safe in the Golden Age of Mystery books really works as a realistic plot device.

Almost all readers were aware that in the real world, without at least a fleeting glance at the synthesis formula for a process, it was almost impossible to begin to make a stab at a rival method for re-creating a man-made chemical.

Nobody steals scientific formulas used in physics, geology, astronomy or biology now do they ?

Secondly, penicillin's unique life-saving abilities had to be kept secret from the world's general public or they would demand it be made in quality for them.

Technically, the synthesizing method would still remain a secret, but alerted by the resulting public clamour, the enemy would try all the harder to match the Allied synthetic penicillin ---- and neither the Germans or the Japanese were slouches in the synthetic department.

And penicillin's actual medical use was also to reveal a distinctly war-like character : it was to be triaged, military style.

That is to say, it was not to be "wasted" (to use Winston Churchill's infamous "green-inked" phrase).

There was simply no military point trying to save the lives of dying ex-combat soldiers who would be of no further military use if they did survive, not when penicillin could be better used to quickly return lightly wounded or infected combat soldiers into battle, so they could get a second crack at dying for their country.

Battles were won or lost by the side that could muster a greater  number of their units' total complement into battle.

Penicillin used under such inhuman terms certainly approached the most war-like of war medicines.

War medicines like the amphetamines, ("The Ecstasy of the Einsatzgruppen") , which unlike penicillin was never in short supply on any military front.

Not once the Axis and the Allies alike discovered that like booze, it made combat soldiers more aggressive , more willing to kill or be killed.

Germ, chemical and radiation warfare were other areas where medical expertise helped make war and killing more effective.

By contrast, social medicine can actually exist in wartime : it tries to lessen the number of non-combat deaths in war and it does so not merely by pouring penicillin powder into combat wounds to reduce the chance of infection.

It says instead that all life is worthy of life, regardless of an individual life's current utility to the war effort.

Because most deaths in war occurs not in combat between troops, but when captured troops , enemy civilians and your own civilians are triaged into two piles : those worthy of decent food, shelter, and health care and those deemed unworthy.

Nazis let millions of Soviet POWS starve to death or to die of disease to free up food supplies for the German civilians back home ; they also shot to death millions of Jews for the same reason.

In India, British authorities, not caring greatly about the Bengali poor, also let millions starve to death or die of hunger related disease, in a time and place with plenty of food.

In America, medical authorities considered people with endocarditis to be a burden on scarce medical resources, who even if they did live, could never contribute much to the military or the civilian war effort - best deny them life-saving penicillin and let them die.

By contrast, Dawson and his supporters said make lots of penicillin and give it freely to our soldiers ( useless or useful) , to all our civilians at home,  to civilians in neutral and occupied countries and even to enemy POWs and civilians.

And then suggest that such a coalition of nations willing to do that is really a coalition worth fighting or dying for, and a coalition worth surrendering to, because you know you will be treated fairly.

Social medicine, said Dawson, was actually the most effective war medicine of them all : and in the end, even Churchill was probably forced to reluctantly agreed, once he got the time to pause and reflect.

 And he certainly got plenty of time to reflect, after his surprising post-war election defeat ---- caused in part, I believe, by his government's unwillingness to provide civilian penicillin during the war : his green-inked words had definitely come back to haunt him.....

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