Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Penicillin in wartime: an alphabet soup of organizations passing the buck then hogging the credit

I am still not fully recovered from the disaster of my first public talk on wartime penicillin before Dalhousie University's  Medical History Society.

I was given a very generous amount of time by the Society's Jock Murray and Allan Marble to state my case but it didn't help : my choice for a title slide in my powerpoint presentation simply covered far too big a subject and left me no 'on the spot' wiggle room.

" Wartime Penicillin : from secret 'war weapon' to widely publicized 'beacon of hope' " is not a topic line easy to compress.

 (Though last night's blog entry on the Janus Month of March 1943 would have been a good attempt at compression.)

Within a minute or two into the talk, I felt like crawling into a hole  and disappearing forever --- I could see by the faces of the audience that I was giving far too much unknown information far too quickly.

Any two or three of my powerpoint slides, from the forty two I had actually come with, could have formed the basis of an interesting talk and a lively amount of discussion afterwards.

Eight and a half years of research has finally made me more or less comfortable with the vast array of sound-alike organizations involved in wartime penicillin,  and their activities are just as important as the individual stories of individuals like  Fleming, Florey and Dawson.

But trying to establish what the OSRD and OPRD were in the first place, even before trying to show how much at odds these two similar sounding government agencies really were on penicillin is a month's work - not a small part of a 40 minute talk.

It is entirely my fault - because the night before the lecture I had noticed that even a well known expert on the history of wartime penicillin (name omitted !) still managed to badly confuse the two in an major article in a digitalized book I found on the internet.

And when a printed work is digitalized and put on the internet, an error is forever and eternity --- and visible to all, worldwide.

That is why my penicillin work  will remain electronically fluid on this blog and in website e-books.

 My errors of fact and interpretation (and I expect and even hope to make many) will be instantly correctable as new information comes to light or savvy readers spot errors and typos.)

And another thing about individuals and institutions when Cinderella unexpectedly turns into the Queen of the Ball.

 After passing the buck for years, they now suddenly tack hard right and start clawing each other to take all the credit .

Sorting who actually did what when, not what they claimed ,after the war ,in expensive official histories, that they did, is  itself a work of many lifetimes...

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