Next year will be ten years that I have been at it, trying to figure out why Henry Dawson did what he did and I am still no further ahead.
Consider this :
In late December 1940, Dawson got both some very good news and some very bad news from the doctors.
At age 45, he would be a father for the third time : Hurray !
Albeit his wife was in her forties , was physically handicapped and earns only a small salary.
This matters, because Henry had also just been told he has Myasthenia Gravis, a very serious auto immune disease that in the early 1940s generally killed within four and half years.
However, if he kept shorter hours, cut back on his stressful activities, stopped working around strong chemicals and ate and slept healthier, he might eke it out until better treatments came along.
Instead, Dr Dawson chose to plunge in ever harder into his self-chosen war task: bad chemicals, lots of stress and all.
He was trying desperately to save the lives of "The 4Fs of the 4Fs" : young people needlessly dying of the disease SBE, because they were judged by the powerful to be only a burden in a time of Allied Total War.
Dying because the medicine that could save them (penicillin) was being reserved instead to use as a weapon of war.
If this sounds eerily like a more subtle version of Hitler's infamous T4 Aktion, you won't be far off.
Dawson's tiny little project was a sort of Aktion 4F, a moral counterblast at both the Allies and the Axis.
Now Dawson had a great moral right to do what he did with penicillin (including stealing scarce government-issued penicillin in a time of war !) because he was the first person in history to use it to try and save a life ( actually two : two SBE patients) - penicillin he had grown and processed himself.
This happened before America was at war, but at a time when the nation's medical and scientific leadership was hardening its heart in preparation to be as ruthless as Hitler, when and if Congress ever chose to fight him.
I believe Dawson reacted against this moral hardening of the arteries, seeing it as the absolutely worst way to win the "hearts and minds" battle against Hitler's ideas.
Dawson was cautious, modest and retiring - his High School yearbook would have voted him "The Least Likely to Rebel".
His own field of expertise was miles and miles and miles away from SBE (Subacute Bacterial Endocarditis - a then invariably fatal heart disease).
He had never before ventured into making and purifying a brand new unknown drug.
He was regarded as a bit of a cracked pot by his colleagues with regard to his own personal research projects, which tended to limit his ability to draw in people into this Aktion 4F project.
This project of altruism literally killed him in the end - but he was not a religious believer so the basis for his extreme act of alturism is hard to find.
So why did he do it ?
I don't know.
But I do know he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
SBE became one of the most curable of fatal diseases, thanks to Dawson's pioneering efforts.
But he did far more than that.
His project forced the Allies to change their War Aims - to stop treating penicillin as a weapon, kept in short supply only for curable Allied frontline troops.
Instead he forced them to seriously mass produce it and to start treating it as something that should be available for all, regardless of race, color or war status.
By late 1944, penicillin had become the ultimate symbol of that highly elusive "good" the Allies had been promising would surely come about , if only all the neutrals of the world got off the fence and helped defeat Hitler.
One explanation on why Dawson did it and how he did it, is that God sometimes picks cracked pots and non-believers ,together with the weak and the foolish, to do big things and confound the Mighty and the Wise.
Dawson seems to fit all four categories.
And certainly the Age of Modernity, the Age of WWII, was the most hubris-bound age ever ; if any age ever needed confounding it was that one.
Dawson and God and penicillin and 4Fs : it just sounds like a Match made in Heaven to me ....
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