Thursday, August 15, 2013

Janus Manhattan : "destroyer of worlds" or "provider of life-affirming balm" or both ?

Penicillium Monstrance

When native Manhattanite Robert J Oppenheimer proclaimed - portentously - "Now I am become DEATH , the destroyer of worlds" after the Manhattan Project's first atomic explosion , he seems to set Manhattan's wartime image in concrete for all time.

It was this existing image of Manhattan that the 911 bombers relied upon to soften the outrage against their mass killings.

But the real Manhattan is far too complex and dynamic to ever present just one face to the world --- and so it was with its activities between 1939 and 1945.

For Manhattan ,Janus-like , had another (almost unknown and largely mis-understood) Project during WWII.

Dr Martin Henry Dawson the medical scientist had a very simple thesis : that Life inevitably 'Comes in All Sizes'.

As a result, 'global commensality' (all life dines at a common table) is a necessity forced upon all of us living beings and we might as well learn to accept it.

But the tenet of his age, The Age of High Modernity (1875 -1965), was that Bigger was Better, in fact the inevitable path of progress.

So small life would have to give way and disappear before the forces of the giants of life.

Dawson believed that WWII would end quicker, with fewer deaths, if the Allies set out to defeat Hitler morally, as well as just militarily.

Instead they were seeming intent on matching Hitler's evil doctrines, albeit in a muted fashion, cut for cut.

Killing American patients like Charles Aronson by passive neglect was hardly morally different than killing German patients like Martin Bader by active injection.

In an era that exalted the Big, Dawson dared to defend the small : small patients like Charlie and small cures, like natural penicillin from mold slime.

Another native Manhattanite , Gladys Hobby, was the most religious devout on Dawson's tiny team.

Instead of a text from Hindu religion, we might choose to see a quasi-Christian symbol in her practise of daily carrying petri dishes of sectoring penicillium mold to the wards holding the dying patients like Charlie.

She did it, she says,  to sustain their morale so they might live long enough for enough penicillin to be produced by her team to save their lives.

Anyone who as ever seen a photograph of sectored penicillium mold on a flat petri dish can not help but think it reminded them of something , but just what ?

Spikes of blue with golden droplets on top radiate in all directions, ending in a circle of white mold growth.

It is a radiant, jewel like  image - rather like a stylized sun.

Like a - that's it - a monstrance : that sun-like object that contains the sacred Host and is held aloft by the priest and minister on special occasions.

A stylized sun, radiating in all directions, warming all, was always an universal symbol of life and hope, even before Christianity.

The Host in a monstrance - Jesus's body for real or as a symbol - is the unifying symbol of the Christian tradition : offering up the hope of (eternal) life , particularly as it is often exposed before those facing death.

But sometimes Jesus offered an earthly life as well as an eternal heavenly life.

So even Lazarus died, physically, in the end, as would patients like Charlie : but even so , every additional day on earth seemed a precious boom and balm to the troubled patient and their families.

Eventually a nearby doctor , Dante Colitti, was inspired to emulate Dr Dawson's government-bucking actions to obtain illicit penicillin supplies for discarded Americans.

He got the masters of Yellow Journalism , the Hearst papers, to go to bat on behalf of the Yellow Magic and a beautiful thing soon happened.

For when a two year baby named Patricia Malone got snatched back from death , around the world 'Doctor Mom' soon was demanding that the men get their butts off the couch and start seriously producing penicillin, now !  ----- fifteen long years after it was first discovered.

Dawson was only a part of the long story of penicillin and antibiotics but he is the whole story of wartime penicillin.

Without his moral drive, the medical cum scientific cum commercial powers-to-be would have still been trying to make highly profitable , patent-able ,synthetic penicillin years after the war ended, instead of mass producing life-saving natural ( public domain) penicillin during the war that so badly needed it.

Dawson's moral urgency personally moved the family of the Pfizer boss and moved that boss to mass produce natural penicillin as soon as possible - and it was Brooklyn based Pfizer that made the vast bulk of the wartime penicillin., let us never forget.

My book about Dawson's Manhattan Project is written as a deliberate rebuttal to the story the 911 bombers told against Manhattan, to try and justify their mass killings.

What they said about Manhattan wasn't totally untrue but it told only part of her story.

Because, like Life itself, Manhattan 'Comes in All Sizes' : she has been the home to unbelievably good things as well as bad things.

I would so much like to ask the 911 bombing planners and their supporters if they or their loved ones had ever been saved by cheap abundant penicillin and do they know that the effort to de-militarize penicillin and make it available to all was spawned in the same Manhattan they love so much to hate ?

Hopefully this book will be the start of that conversation we need to have with the Manhattan-haters.....

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