Sunday, August 25, 2013

Crude Penicillin and Bacterial Transformation : two neologisms of Henry Dawson

Henry Dawson was far from a wordsmith but he did coin two neologisms that have survived in today's scientific and historical lexicon.

One was "bacterial transformation" (a form of HGT, horizontal gene transfer -- basically non-Darwinian inheritance) and the other was "crude penicillin".

To explain this latter term is is best to recognize it is really a term of scientific and political polemics.

Let us imagine a British Empire in the early 1940s, badly hurting a time of war because it had refused to accept a fact known for at least two centuries.

That fact was that the most natural , most versatile and cheapest way to solve the naval and merchant ship scurvy crisis was with a good supply of citrus fruit kept on board.

Marshalled against this fact discovered by James Lind was an array of louder, better educated and greedier voices.

What they were telling the government and the media and future historians was that Britain's dying sailors must simply be patient.

In its own sweet time an expensive synthetic vitamin C was sure to emerge, fully patented, from one of the nation's chemical firms.

One expensively patented , tasteless , pill would solve the human daily needs for vitamin C - as would other patented pills for all our daily food intake.

We needn't waste time away from our desks on meals when a glass of water and a big handful or two of pills would solve the problem.

Against this chemical boasting would be an array of people saying that they looked forward to meals - perhaps even more than sex and certainly far more than they looked forward to work.

Others would point out that citrus fruit and vitamin C rich vegetables are found world wide - are both cheap and abundant - a security of supply issue.

They would further point out that the deadly delay in solving this sea-going crisis for the Empire was simply down to greed and ambition.

The delay was down to some ambitious scientists seeking the glory for having synthesized something Mother Nature already provided and to some greedy chemical companies wanting a profitable patent to exploit.

These claims against patented vitamin C pills are so damning  a master scientific polemist would be called upon to defend Chemistry.

A scientific polemist like Howard Florey because he, too, was a bit of a neologism creator : he was the first person to talk about impure and pure penicillin, for example.

An orange ,he could point out, could potentially be a dangerous source of vitamin C because it was an impure  source of the needed vitamin (in the sense that vitamin C only made up a tiny fraction of one percent of the orange by weight).

In a 1940s culture where the middle class had more education than common sense, this would be effective arguing : everyone wanted cleanliness and purity.

Henry Dawson immediately caught onto this "Only I know how to make pure safe penicillin" line of attack from Florey's very first article on penicillin and quickly mounted a rebuttal.

And he did so in the august pages of the New York Times on May 6th 1941.

In effect, he said an orange can be one of four things, as regards to being an safe source of vitamin C.

It could be unsafe because both the orange and its vitamin C are potentially dangerous.

It could be safe because both the orange and its vitamin C are harmless to consume.

It could be unsafe because vitamin C is potentially dangerous, perhaps in larger quantities.

It could be unsafe because the orange itself was potentially toxic.

The only thing to do , as always , was less talk and more experiments.

He tested impure penicillin (penicillium juice) upon himself and upon some human patients and found it perfectly safe.

He boldly called his successful medicine "crude penicillin" --- naturally made penicillin happily bathing its its naturally produced impure bath.

it was a medicine made by microbes and offered up to all, free in the Public Domain : thus meeting Florey's subtle corporate agenda head-on.

Ironically, years later, it was revealed that pure penicillin itself  was potentially unsafe (unlike the rest of the harmless penicillium juice) because when pure it can be given in large enough amounts to result in sudden penicillin allergy deaths !

Pure members of the aryan races might still believe they can only survive on pure penicillin and pure vitamin C but the rest of this polyglot world still likes to take its daily nourishment 'crude' , dining around the table with family and friends.

It hasn't seemed to harm the seven billions of us so far....

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