Wednesday, May 22, 2013

WWII Brooklyn to be home to war's biggest killing machine or war's smallest life-saver ?

In the end, the Borough of Brooklyn (NYC) became home to both : the Iowa class of battleships and the home of most of the war's penicillin.

But it had been a near run thing ; this battle over the moral soul of Brooklyn.

After all, from the beginning of the war, the leaders of the Great Powers (Churchill, FDR,Tojo,Stalin and Hitler) were determined to show the world what the greatest entities on Earth could do, if they set their mind to it.

WWII is proof that they succeeded in spades .

Opposing them, Dr (Martin) Henry Dawson was also determined to show the world something too.

In this case, just what the world's smallest,weakest entities (cells of penicillium fungi) were also capable of.

So, as part of that Great Power display of massive size and killing force, the USA had commissioned the last series of battleships it ever built : heavily gunned, heavily armoured and extremely fast.

No war machine has ever been built that was better at going in, taking huge punishment, and still delivering lethal blows in return.

If the editors of machine-porn publications like Popular Mechanics are capable of having wet dreams, the Iowa class battleships were what they (and their mostly male readers) had wet dreams over.

The Iowa class was an extremely potent blend of what a battleship needs to shine and the design (now 75 years old) must have worked because WWII-built ships of that class remain to this day , still in reserve, ready to go back in action.

The Brooklyn Naval Yard built the two most famous, the USS Iowa itself and the USS Missouri ("Big Mo") --- they took 70,000 people in the huge yard several years to do so, working around the clock.

It was the war-related work that the Borough of Brooklyn liked best to be remembered for.

But in a small discarded ice-making plant in another less well known part of the Borough, another item of war was made and shipped all over the world - spreading the  good word about Brooklyn in places the USS Iowa class couldn't even think of going.

On a corner of Marcy Avenue was a improvised plant that the then tiny Charles Pfizer Company cobbled together to make naturally-made penicillin (penicillin made by Dawson's little fungi cells) as fast as Pfizer could, as hard as Pfizer could, starting in March 1944.

By June 6th of that same year, natural penicillin underwent its first mass clinical trials : a baptism literally of fire.

Because 80% of the penicillin that came ashore on the Normandy beaches that day was made in the Pfizer Marcy Avenue ice plant.

And Pfizer's naturally-made penicillin continued to be the largest single source of that life saving medicine, around the world, for the remainder of the war.

It doesn't take much natural penicillin to save a life in 1944 - a gram will do nicely - and a tiny glass ampoule, the world's smallest lifesaver, will easily hold it.

By contrast, a full loaded USS Iowa weighed 25 billion grams.

From his luxury apartment high above the exclusive Prospect Slopes area of Brooklyn, the manufacturing head of Pfizer, John L Smith, could easily see the building of the USS Iowa and USS Missouri .

Perhaps as a result he felt that Brooklyn was pulling more than its weight in the effort to stop Hitler and Tojo.

A cautious, frugal man, he wasn't about to bet the shop against the best brains in the world drug industry by producing massive amounts of natural penicillin when the smart money said cheaper synthetic penicillin was only another test tube away.

Sure Henry Dawson was always on his case, urging him to mass produce natural penicillin now, because a ampoule in the doctor's hand was worth a million in the mind of some drug company chemist.

"People are dying needlessly, daily, all over the world because the sulfa drugs are meeting more and more bacterial resistance and there will never be anymore new sulfas in the pipeline."

But John L long resisted (even if his wife was perhaps more open to Dawson's appeal) .

Maybe Smith was feeling that Pfizer had already done enough for the boys overseas, because didn't the firm's exclusive citric acid fuel the cold soda pops that all the overseas GIs, wounded or healthy, craved so avidly?

Soda pops hit the spot for sure, but to a GI dying of blood poisoning, only penicillin could really save their lives.

What if Smith's sole surviving daughter shipped out as a nurse and got seriously ill ?

Would she be grateful to her dad for providing the cold soda pop that eased her dying moments or would she have preferred the penicillin that could have saved her life, if only her father had been more decisive?

But nothing Dawson said seemed to have cut much ice with Smith.

Not until the plight of a dying two year old , saved by penicillin, touched Smith's heart, along with the rest of the world, in mid-August 1943.

Perhaps the crisis for the two parents of young Patty Malone reminded Mr and Mrs Smith all too vividly of the similar agony they went through a dozen years earlier with their first daughter, who died from a disease that penicillin could have saved her from.

Something must have clicked in the soul of John L, because despite strong reports that synthetic penicillin actually was 'just around the corner' this time, Smith suddenly committed Pfizer to an all out effort to mass produce natural penicillin both for the boys overseas by D-Day and for those dying back home for lack of it.

Smith's beloved Dodgers went on to chokedlike never before, during that summer of 1944, but Brooklyn (the Borough) scored big in its own extended road trip.

'Knocked them alive' in fact, in places like Omaha, Utah,  Juno,  Silver and Gold ....

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