Monday, January 21, 2013

Science's faith-based belief in the non-toxicity of pure natural Penicillin

For an entire generation of scientists, doctors and science reporters (those working between 1929 and 1949), it was an article of absolute faith that pure penicillin was non-toxic.

But how did they know? How in the hell did they know ?

For during most of those years they had never seen anything like pure penicillin , let alone given it an extensive work-out down in the hospital wards.

When the ward doctors finally got their hands on lots of crystal clear 100% pure factory-made penicillin , a not-so-funny thing happened.

Some of the patients got the rigours and the shakes, as some patients had always done on receiving earlier "crude penicillin", but these shakes ended in their sudden and dramatic death from severe anaphylactic shock.

The earlier generation of penicillin researchers (with an extremely tiny handful of exceptions) seemed to stuff logic and reason in the kester, whenever they discussed crude penicillin's non-toxicity.

The evidence before their eyes was clear.

It said, repeatedly, that a crude mixture of one part natural penicillin to thirty thousand parts of its natural impurities and nine hundred and seventy thousand parts water was basically non-toxic, causing only minor and temporary temperature rises when injected into animals (or slightly modified, into humans).

But the mental conclusion they always drew from these visible facts, was logically unwarranted to the max times infinity.

They said - consistently - for twenty years - that pure natural penicillin was extremely non-toxic (it just had to be !and that the natural impurities were the cause of any fever caused upon injection (it just had to be !)

A lack of undergraduate level logic caused a holocaust of needless deaths

A undergraduate course in Philosophic Logic would suggest that these researchers and science reporters had totally confounded non-toxicity with purity.

Because a logics professor like Rowland C Marshall would remind his students that a moment's reflection should suggest that pure poison is more , not less, toxic than less pure poison : non-toxicity and purity share no relationship.

There are in fact only three possible correct answers in this particular pop quiz :

(A ) The impurities are the sole cause of the temporary allergic fever. (B) The penicillin is the sole cause of the allergic fever. (C) Both can be the cause, varying on the particular set of circumstances and genetic nature of the patients involved.

The truth is, there was no way of knowing, at that time, what was the real cause for this minor temporary fever spike ---  particularly after administrating only weak doses of crude mixture 'penicillin'.

A much better test would come when a much stronger doses of pure penicillin were administered and we could see then if strong and pure penicillin doses alone can cause allergic shock or not.

But even that might not convince anybody who felt it just had to be some incredibly tiny fragment from the original natural fermentation process that somehow slipped into 100% pure penicillin and that was the true cause of the allergy.

(A big shout out to Dr Gordon Stewart who pursued this line of thinking, in the true bull-headed cum Sir Robert Robinson fashion.)

 Why not, said American chemist John Sheehan,  why not wait ?

Why not wait to test an extremely pure dose of  synthetic penicillin, which had never ever been near a natural fermentation process, to test it for possible allergy shocks ?

He did so - and finally found that pure chemically synthesized penicillin indeed could still cause allergic reactions in some people.

In the end, it turned out that answer (C) was the correct one , but that with weak doses of penicillin administered fairly slowly, the reaction does not appear to have killed anyone.

At least not before1946 and the issuing of abundant amounts of pure penicillin for use in non-hospital settings.

This twenty year bugaboo about crudity equalling , ipso facto , toxicity was a pure intellectual red herring.

It not only fooled the generation of idiots who uttered it, it was also the major reason why a whole holocaust of patients died needlessly for 15 years while researchers sought to purify a life-saver that already worked perfectly well in a crude mixture.

To his undying credit, Henry Dawson realized how absurd this thinking was in October 1940 when he said " let's just do it".

He then slipped a needle-full of  a crude mixture of natural penicillin and its natural impurities into a patient, confident that the crude mixture would only cause a minor and temporary temperature rise at worst.

His sense of charity and chivalry was admirable, but in this particular case, I would argue his Scottish sense of logic and reason were rarer and more admirable still.....

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