Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Collar the Lot" : Churchill's callousness push-starts A-bomb and Penicillin development

I don't like Winston Churchill.

Granted he was a very complex man, much given to uttering extreme verbal outbursts on whatever position he held that moment, replaces a few hours or weeks later by an equally exaggerated outburst on the opposite view on that same issue.

So it is easy to find vivid quotes from him displaying both humanity and brutality towards the German Jews and Leftists who fled Hitler for Britain before 1939.

For brutal , see his comment 'collar the lot' as soon as he became PM in May 1940.

Until then, the UK had sensibly only interned ( interned gently) those it deemed as obviously pro-Nazi.

But as he threw pro Nazi Aryans and very anti Nazi Jews together in internment camps, those few (because judged potentially 'valuable' to the war effort) German Jews still free in the English-speaking democracies could see dire times ahead for them too.

If they didn't move from being potentially valuable to 'actually valuable' and soon, they and their families would be interned with all the rest.

Ironically, existing restrictions on their current activities actually helped many succeed in becoming valuable ( very,very,very valuable) to the Allied cause.

We already well know about all those Jewish physicists, denied the right to work on important war efforts like Radar, who  fell back upon the then scientific backwater of a possible engine of atomic energy.

Their energetic development (hello Simon, Szilard and others) led directly to the idea of a possible A-Bomb becoming not the last but the first priority of the war.

It is not often thought of in the same way, but the Penicillin project (often twinned with the A-Bomb as one of the two big discoveries of the war) was push-started by two German Jewish emigres also facing possible internment for themselves and their families in the Spring and Summer of 1940, after Churchill's churlish actions.

Ernst Chain had to push and pull Howard Florey into realizing their peacetime, long term, basic research on microbe on microbe warfare could have huge wartime implications.

He probably pushed and pulled a little too hard in claiming credit on a back up project - this one on the chemical nature of the activity of the (mildly anti-bacterial) connective cellwall-destroying enzyme Lysozyme.

This had the effect of rousing the anger of , and the fear within, of another German Jewish emigre in America who had additional fears as he was also an WWI veteran of the Central Powers.

Karl Meyer had worked with (Martin) Henry Dawson among many others,to do the initial work on the chemical nature of Lysozyme and on some other important connective tissue destroying enzymes.

He saw himself as the pioneer in this small but valuable new field in bio-chemistry.

Meyer heard of Chain's forthcoming exaggerated claims for his Lysozyme efforts via the American-born Jew Leslie A Epstein (later Falk).

Like Meyer and Chain in those days, Epstein was a left-winger in politics and in medicine.

He got along with both of these two fellow Jews.

He had been forced, by general government order,  to flee Oxford University and a Rhodes scholarship before his year and PhD was completed.

So he completed his work, begun under Chain in Oxford, with Meyer in New York, because he was the other recognized expert on the topic.

He there mentioned Chain's part in the recent successful demonstration (May 1940) that the twelve year old nigh-on useless penicillin actually could cure bacterial disease inside mice without harming them.

This meant it probably could do likewise inside humans - humans perhaps even with guns and helmets. There was a shooting war on , after all.

This work was to be published in late August 1940 in Lancet.

Chain was soon tasked to try and synthesize the natural active ingredient as fast as possible.

Meyer - I believe correctly - felt that Chain was a far better 'big ideas man' than a working bio-chemist and that Meyer could do the job far better than Chain or the fungi ever could .

He couldn't beat the fungi, as it turned out - no one could - no one ever has.

But Meyer's secret plan to repay Chain for stealing his Lysozyme credit AND secure his family from possible internment with Nazis by synthesizing penicillin was not without its own profound consequences.

Because he badly needed his friend Henry Dawson and his two skills , if his project was to succeed.

Dawson and his co-worker Gladys Hobby were expert micro-biologists.

They were highly skilled in growing large amount of microbes, like the penicillium.

Their skill was needed to provide the huge amounts of raw natural product Meyer had to destructively analyze, all to guide the process of synthesis of penicillin from pure chemical compounds.

Secondly, only Dawson the clinician had the licensed legal access to animal and human subjects to test the biological effectiveness of any new results at synthesis.

Then Dawson abruptly decided Meyer's penicillin might do a lot more than just be tested on human patients.

It might just cure patients otherwise doubly-fated to an inevitable death from the dreaded SBE.

 Doubly fated to needlessly die, because in the Fall of 1940, it seemed the medical establishment was using the upcoming war effort as an excuse to treat research upon them as the very lowest priority.

In addition, American Big Pharma had shown no interest in providing any raw starting material of a potential - natural - drug they considered far tougher to work with than the still tractable and still profitable - chemically-oriented - sulfa family of drugs.

And they had no interest in developing a consultant-style relationship with a virtually unknown emigre Jewish biochemist, even with a growing reputation for the quality of his work.

(Meyer did have some sort of relationship with German-controlled Schering but they didn't see the potential - at least for their firm at this time - in the area of fungal-based antibiotics.)

Dawson saw this growing indifference to the sad fate of the poor SBE youths as part and parcel of the growing general meanness of the Modern Age itself, as exemplified by humanity's attitudes to small nations under attack from their big bullying neighbours.

This indifference to the fate of smaller 'others' started in Manchuria in 1931, then extended to Ethiopia and Spain in the mid 1930s  and then Austria and Czechoslovakia at the end of the decade.

Now it was Poland, Finland, the three Balt states, Denmark, Norway and Belgium turn to be attacked and generally conquered by bully neighbours.

Still America's population and hence government remained firmly 'neutral' - as did the vast majority of the still sovereign nations of the world.

In hindsight, it is better to regard them all , us all , as being cold-hearted bystanders in the global schoolyard, watching indifferently as bullies beat up babies.

When Dawson decided to use Meyer's penicillin project to confront this indifference to the small of the world, starting with the specific case of the young people needlessly dying of SBE , he eventually set in motion a globe-wide reaction against Modernity's cult of callousness.

But let us never forget it was Winston Churchill's own particular callousness that first set it all in motion , back in May 1940 ....

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