Wednesday, February 6, 2013

OSRD /1942: did Manhattan Project type thinking bleed over and obstruct the Penicillin Project as well ?

It is crystal clear that Merck's top scientific advisor A N Richards was never a strong advocate for fast-paced penicillin development within Merck, as that drug company casually messed about with penicillin, from November 1939 till August 1941.

That is, Merck had 18 months of some sort of commercial and scientific activity around penicillin , before Howard Florey actually arrived on the scene.

But Florey eventually made Richards a strong convert to the idea of having Richards' military medical weapon oriented agency , the famous OSRD , use penicillin for secret military advantage over the Axis.

It is not clear that this would have extended - in practise - to denying penicillin to dying Axis POWs.

 But keeping penicillin a secret from the Axis definitely would have denied penicillin to dying Allied POWs behind Axis lines : something that all of Florey's, Richards' and Fleming's present day defenders universally ignore.

Very much to his credit then that WWI vet and WWII military officer and doctor Robert Pulvertaft did dis-obey orders and shared the secrets of penicillin production with Axis-friendly Turkish doctors.

But imagining a Canadian dying of sulfa-resistant blood poisoning in a German POW camp and the Canadian POWs being told by the German doctor, 'we could save him , if only we had a bit of this Allied-invented penicillin that we've been hearing rumours of'.

When the Canadians ask why doesn't the doctor get some, the doctor says that if the Allies won't even share penicillin with their own dying civilians, how can they be expected to share it with the enemy ?

But could penicillin have really ever have been a potentially secret and successful medical weapon ?

Here I , following closely on Henry Dawson's thinking,  definitely part company with Florey and his friend Richards.

Henry Dawson demonstrated - in just five weeks - and under conditions as fully primitive as Fleming's, that one could quickly make a lot of crude penicillin that was non-toxic when injected into humans.

If Fleming and Dawson could do so, (quickly, easily and cheaply, ) so too could the fired up Nazi war machine.

Not so, said Florey -and his side kick Richards.

The scientific characteristics of penicillin haven't changed at all since September 1928, but now , thanks to Florey, the scientific rhetoric totally had.

Florey tells his readers and listeners, to ignore completely what Fleming-the-author says is "penicillin".

To wit, 'a mixture of about two dozen unknown compounds in a slurry of water that is non-toxic even if injected in very large volumes internally, and yet has marked anti-bacterial affects'.

In my revision of the facts, says Florey in his first August 1940 article, "penicillin" is now actually just one of those compounds.

All the rest and all that water are just dirty, dank and dangerous.

Only if penicillin is first pure, dry and stable is it any good.

Because where it is really good , is in the front lines as a local antiseptic for open war wounds (here I do still agree with Fleming) ---- and that idea won't work if crude liquid penicillin must kept viable in portable electric refrigerators.

Who ever has heard of such things ?

But as Florey tells Richards how complex and difficult the purification process is, Richards grows despondent again, but never the less this information does go into the back of Richards brain.

Only to re-emerge in early 1942, when the forces of war censorship and secrecy can be employed in full bloom.

Because complex and expensive separation and purification processes had become very much a two-edged sword for American military science and industry.

Artificial rubber was vital to the war effort - it was easy to make but a real bugger to separate the good rubber from the bad.

Dried blood products held real promise at the front lines - but only if their separation wasn't so complex.

And the Atomic Bomb - a piece of cake to make it work - if only we could get enough pure U-235 separated.

At some point early in 1942, these problems suddenly became military and commercial opportunities in the minds of the OSRD's highest officers.

If only rich, un-bombed America could solve these complex purification problems - and then keep the details secret - this would give them a big military advantage over their poorer enemy opponents.

And give America a post-war commercial advantage as well over its smaller poorer Allied friends like Britain.

So just as we see an abrupt turn around , in mid 1942 , from the OSRD re sharing much atomic information with the British, we start to see the British also get less information from the OSRD about penicillin research as well.

Like synthetic rubber, synthetic quinine, dried blood products and U-235, the very expensive complexity of pure penicillin suddenly made it more, not less ,of an attraction to the military weapon-oriented OSRD.

The key was to keep secret from the American voters and taxpayers just how many miracle cures were happening with the current - relatively impure -penicillin.

Because if they knew that, the newspapers would be filled with it and the Germans and Japanese would hear about it via Neutral nation reporting.

They they too would also start curing their base hospital wounded with crude semi-purified penicillin ,largely negating the military advantage of fully dry stable pure penicillin.

But was there really ever an absolute need for dry stable penicillin to use it in the front lines ?

Poppycock !

Because it turned out that good old crude liquid blood was actually much better than the complex dried stuff at saving soldiers' lives and could just as easily be used even in combat : good old fashioned low tech American ingenuity (not from the OSRD high tech boys of course) came to the rescue.

Cheap, rugged, disposable,  parachute-portable plywood ice boxes kept blood and penicillin cold, with refills of ice every couple of days........

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