Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The 180 degree flip of wartime penicillin : from secret weapon of war to public weapon of propaganda

War is not at all like the playing fields of Eton , many reports to the contrary.

Both sides get advance notice of the time, place and nature of the activity in sports - and there is a strictly enforced set of rules.

By contrast, a successful military offensive operation is far more than half won if it is kept secret to the last moment and beyond.

Convince your foe you plan this Spring's big push there , after the roads have dried and then attack here - when the roads are still muddy - and he might still think it a feint even when your troops are in fact about to knock down the doors of his command centre.

Surprise and secrecy can often beat much higher qualities and quantities of  equipment, manpower and leadership --- if most of a weak force is concentrated in a narrow sector of the enemy's lines  at a time the enemy doesn't expect a major attack.

This need for surprise and secrecy applies to military activity off the battle field as well.

If - as happened all the time in the Pacific Campaign- both sides were down to 10% effective strength due to all the rest laid low by endemic local infections , the battle is almost certainly won if a secret cure-all like DDT clears up the insect source of those infections.

Because the exclusive use of DDT by only one side could enable it to send 50% of its tinier force into battle and win.

But only if DDT's abilities remain secret.

DDT was not strictly speaking "secret" ---- its chemical formula and method of manufacture was revealed in the public scientific literature back in 1874 and again in 1940 in a Swiss patent from Geigy.

But the Japanese hadn't seen those scientific reports or if so, hadn't grasped their military significance.

But even the stupidest Japanese general could correctly access urgent Japanese diplomatic cables indicating that the American domestic press was raving about the miracle success of DDT in clearing malaria from its endemic regions in the southern states of America.

So DDT was kept as secret as possible and more fundamentally , was not made available for civilian use during WWII.

This despite the fact that it was easy and cheap to make and very stable in storage - for the cost of one or two B-29s, the country's agricultural zones could all be sprayed by DDT and the resulting greater farm productivity would well repay the cost of the DDT factories.

Crops - as well as guns - win wars too, it could be argued.

But in fact, the productivity side of Total War was totally ignored over the secrecy side of Total War.

It was similar with Penicillin.

 The key reason that striking, dramatic, heart-stopping successes in dragging civilian bodies back from the grave's edge in 1942-1943 were not permitted to be published by the AMA-OSRD-NAS triad was because this would indirectly alert the world to the military life-saving abilities of penicillin.

Wesley Spink did not rock the boat - unlike Henry Dawson

(See Wesley Spink's dramatic first success in July 1942 with seven year old "JE" - a heart-warming case which was not allowed to be published/publicized until April 1945, for a vivid example.)

Publicizing civilian cures would equalize its effects on the war if both sides, suitably alerted, then employed it freely.

Even if the health-restoring ability of penicillin made the war economy far more productive than the cost of setting up penicillin plants would take out of it ---- and this resulting extra productivity was devoted to making more weapons.

Because, at least in theory , both sides would see their economies expand equally - returning everything to the position it was before penicillin became widely public.

So instead, the Allies hoped to synthesize penicillin so that it was both cheap and abundant (like DDT) but also like DDT, they planned not to release it to the public, but use it as a military weapon - a secret medical weapon - exactly as DDT used.

But the heart-warming story of Baby Patricia in August 1943 let the cat out of the bag, as this local story in New York 'broke wide' , not just stateside but all around the world.

Now not just every civilian in the world wanted it for their sick relative like yesterday but military chiefs across the globe awoke (15 years late !) to the military potential of the miracle cure.

The chiefs of the American military medicine triad (and their equally smarmy British counterparts) pouted ---- but clever people in the Offices of War Information in both Allied nations resolved to make a virtue of necessity.

Baby Patty got her penicillin over the heads of the triad, but now official penicillin would be rushed by American military bombers to saving dying kids all over the world and the effort highly publicized in the process.

It would say to friend, foe and neutral alike that unlike those nasty life-denying Nazis, the Allies cared : oh how they cared.

Henry Dawson must have snickered at the blatant dishonesty in
this abrupt volte-face, but he was very glad lives were being saved however it came about and that the "unlimited potential" of the life-saving mold was at long last being released....

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