Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Wartime Penicillin's coke-addled Janus Month : March 1943

In March 1943 (midway through the war) , for the very first time in WWII, a part of wartime penicillin research that had been hitherto public was finally and effectively put under official government censorship : anything involving the chemistry of penicillin.

At the very same time, other (hitherto effectively secret) parts of the penicillin story were about to become globally publicized in official government propaganda !

"I am not making this up", as Canada's Liberal Party is wont to say.

The chemical nature of penicillin was about to become Top Secret and there was to be no more public articles by Howard Florey's or Henry Dawson's team, in journals like NATURE and SCIENCE, all about the chemical structure of penicillin to aid German or Japanese chemists on how to synthesize penicillin themselves.

But given the wide availability of all the previous chemistry structure-oriented articles in these two, the biggest of all general science journals in the world, the Axis might not need much further help.

Because back issues of these two journals were still easily available to the scientific diplomatic attaches of the many still-neutral nations  in  capital cities like London, Ottawa and Washington, the Axis chemists may not have needed to employ spies, to seek out the newest secret research .

But the Top Secret classification reflected a new found confidence at Merck, Oxford and the ORSD that the penicillin molecule had finally been cracked and the chemistry of the molecule was a commercial and possibly military secret well worth keeping.

Even Robert Coghill, the penicillin czar at the fermenatation-oriented NRRL labs,  was about to turn his coat to the side of synthesis.

What better time then to hand the hated finicky biological approach to penicillin production to the War Production Board, (the WPB) ?

Who cared if the WPB and the normally-secretive US Army seemed determined to widely publicize , to Allied, Axis and neutral nation alike, just how good this new fangled penicillin really was for military medicine ?


Because for the first time in the war, parts of penicillin other that its chemistry (such as its clinical miracle cures which had been hitherto in America effectively if unofficially censored) were going to become the focus of official government propaganda  and broadcast to the heavens.

Janus month indeed.

In an variant on "the first shall be last and the last first", what had been public was about to become secret and what had been secret was about to become public.

In January 1943, Karl Meyer, the chemist of Dawson's team, could still publish the team's latest best guess on the chemical formula for penicillin, but the team still couldn't discuss their results on treating patients since October 1940.

By January 1944, Dawson could publish his success with patients and penicillin to the world via  JAMA, but later that same year, Meyer's harmless paper on biological products of penicillin written to be delivered at a conference,  was forced to be withdrawn at the last minute, for fear he'd say something chemical and hence secret.

Bizarre but true ...... !

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