Friday, September 6, 2013

" Crude is more than 'good enough' ...

... if it can save lives right now ! "

Lifesaving's perpetual understudy , Penicillin, unexpectedly made her long overdue debut in a medical theatre in uptown Manhattan on October 16th 1940 .

Albeit more than a dozen years after the best lifesaver ever known was first discovered.

It all happened when Dr Henry Dawson suddenly broke his understanding with biochemist Karl Meyer that penicillin would not be used systemically (given to save a life), until she had been synthesized or at least very highly refined.

It had been assumed that this happy event would probably occur sometime early in the new university term starting in January 1941.

But it had all changed now.

For Dawson was facing not just one but two young patients dying on his ward of the invariably fatal untreatable disease SBE that he was convinced penicillin could finally cure.

SBE usually hit the poor, immigrants and minorities.

Naturally enough, on the very first day of the new draft, they were judged by the eugenically-minded medical elite as being the 4Fs of the 4Fs,  life unworthy of wasting too much expensive and scarce medical attention upon in a time of war.

Dawson felt passionately different - he felt that saving the 4Fs of the 4Fs in a time of war was the best possible riposte to Hitler and his values : because not a military victory but a moral victory for the Allies was what was really needed to fire the world up to tackle the Nazis with serious energy.

'If crude penicillin can start saving lives now, it is more than refined enough' was Dawson's new mantra , as he introduced this neologism into the medical-chemical vernacular.

To a chemistry-besotted medical fraternity, wedded to ever greater purity and refinement , this deliberate use of the term crude tied together with their main job, lifesaving, was like a red flag.

Crude penicillin for crude patients was their unspoken sentiment.

It didn't make Dawson popular then or now with the medical and chemical communities..... or their historians.

Because it reminds us all, that as Hippocrates looked on in horror, for 15 wasted years the world medical community choose to put refinement before life-saving.

But what ordinary patients thought of Dawson's notions has hardly ever been asked.

I am a patient who has received cheap, abundant , natural , non-synthetic, non-patented, "inclusive" penicillin of the Henry Dawson variety and I am grateful to him : eternally grateful.

I don't think I am alone.

"Hyssop in a time of Cedar" then is a 'patient's eye view' of Henry Dawson's impact on the genesis of wartime penicillin : from exclusive, secret, patented and militarized to inclusive, public, public domain and de-militarized.

Because the knowledge that cheap, abundant penicillin was being made available - now - to dying people of all classes, colours and genders around the world was more than just WWII's equivalent of WWI's promise of a return to "a land fit for heroes" : it was the Word made visible.

It was not just the fact that penicillin , like the sulfa drugs before it, saved lives - that was not enough.

It more in the way news reports revealed that it was carried  literally around the world, by bombers diverted from their normal killing work, during the Total War to end All Wars, to save the lives of dying babies.

This - the promise of returning home to a world 'healthy enough for heroes' - finally seemed an Allied cause worth dying for.

This sentiment was best expressed, not by a British Prime Minister in a barnburner of a open air speech, but by the phrase-makers of an new age : an anonymous copywriter slaving away for a booze baron from somewhere out in the American Mid West.

Over a painting of a severely wounded American GI getting  penicillin in a vividly colourful jungle battlefield, were the evocative words , "Thanks to PENICILLIN - he will come home! "

And thanks too, to the bog-ordinary mold that created this miracle this ad reminded its viewers.

That something ordinarily so small and despised could wrought such miracles - that too put paid to Hitler and Tojo's claim that Might made right and Bigger was always better.

If inclusivity , rather than unitary exclusivity, is the hallmark of our post-modern era, then Henry Dawson's crude penicillin for crude patients was one of the physical first artifacts of postmodernity...

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