Saturday, February 16, 2013

Penicillin's "Bengali Famine Years" : 1943-1944

It was not America and Britain, it was not even the British and American governments ,that made the momentous decision, between late 1942 and early 1943, not to divert tax money just a little away from bombs and towards penicillin production instead.

This decision led, over the period of 1943-1944,  to a Bengali Famine-like situation among the Allies over shortages of live-saving drugs for civilians.

It was only one government agency in each country that made that decision ; albeit all-powerful agencies in the middle of a war.

But I do not believe they acted contrary to the informally expressed sentiments of their country's war cabinets.

Let the record note their names : Vannevar Bush's weapon-developing agency known as the OSRD in America and the Ministry of (Army) Supply (MoS) in Britain, with the common link urging them into this course being Sir Howard Florey.

By contrast, diverting even a tiny tiny amount of the government's war resources to the issuing of firm standing orders for penicillin purchases could have provided adequate semi-purified natural penicillin to treat all cases (civilian and military) of patients dying from blood poisoning that were resistant to the only life-saving alternative, the sulpha drugs.

Let me make it perfectly, morally, clear : the fundamental issue was not that penicillin was in short supply : it was that any method of saving those dying of sulpha-resistant blood poisoning was in desperately short supply.

These diverted resources , expressed as firm government orders for penicillin at currently profitably prices ,would have stimulated private capital to make good use of current technology and of idle rural factories that had closed because of the war , as well as unskilled rural labour also left idle because of the war.

As models that this could have and in fact did work in practise, one only needs, in the case of Britain, to point to Glaxo's first low tech but efficient penicillin factories cobbled out of bits of unused space in other people's factories.

And in the American case, to point to an enterprising rural mushroom farmer called Raymond Rettew who briefly became the world's biggest penicillin producer, in the late spring of 1943.

FDR's party did not lose the 1944 election over this issue , because another part of his American government (the WPB, War Production Board) chose to totally reversed this decision, and in spades.

But Churchill's party did ultimately pay the full price for this decision made by the MoS (led by his fellow Tory, Sir Andrew Duncan) not to push for enough penicillin production resources to help civilian as well as soldier, later in the war.

That was when his party overwhelmingly lost the general election it was supposed to romp home in, July 2nd 1945 .

Churchill's equally callous decision not to stop the wartime Bengali Famine in which four million people died ( "If there really is a famine, why hasn't Gandhi died?" he sneered) probably also sealed the chances of Churchill's Britain holding onto the Indian Empire.

If Florey had been even moderately left wing rather than very right wing, he might have gone to other more left wing oriented agencies of the British and American governments and the wartime penicillin story could have been very different .

If the wartime history of Civil War Era America was written as historians write the Pollyanna story of wartime penicillin, there would be only one America and one government ,with no sense at all of conflict between different parts of America.

My work on wartime penicillin will make it very clear that two agencies of the American government, the OSRD and the WPB were not in agreement on penicillin production levels and methods but in conflict.

 Just as in the UK,  Howard Florey/MoS and Harry Jephcott/Glaxo were not in agreement on these same issues but in conflict.

And I will make it clear that there were no technical reasons why civilians could not have penicillin in 1943-1944 , rather it was the result of a political and moral decision not to produce one less bomber squadron if that was the cost of bring penicillin to dying civilians.

For these were penicillin famines by government fiat : Bengal-on-the-Potomac and Bengal-on-the-Thames.....

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