Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gladys Hobby : Calvinist on a catholic mission...

From September 1940 till December 1943, Dr Gladys Hobby, a devout Presbyterian on a catholic mission ("Penicillin-for-all") , daily visited the Green wards of Columbia-Presbyterian hospital, where the young victims of green SBE waited out their inevitable deaths.

Daily, she held aloft before them a petri dish just aglow with radiated golden penicillium mold, as if it were some marvelous medical monstrance.

As she and her tiny team undoubtedly believed it was.

She and the other three on that team hoped that the golden vision would inspire the SBEs' spirits and lift them up to hold on - and hold off their fate - while the team raced against time to save them.

The team goal was "Penicillin-for-all", even (nay, particularly) during a Total War : inexpensive, abundant penicillin, penicillin enough to save these lives of these young '4Fs of the 4Fs' , whose fate was so blithely dismissed along the mean corridors of wartime science.

Only one thing stood in the team's way : the obdurate opposition of the two most powerful wartime governments , those of America and Britain.

So no government grants, no helpful institutional support  (university presidents and deans don't have to be a weatherman to know the way the wind blows), only sullen opposition from their immediate bosses and general hostility from the Anglo-American medical establishment.

All that the team had going for it was the indomitable courage of its leader, Dr Martin "Henry" Dawson.

He himself was dying of an extremely debilating disease, Myasthenia Gravis, that in the early 1940s was usually fatal in four and a half years.

(With 'MG' we tend to think of respiratory arrest, crash carts and code blue but even in between these not-infrequent dramatic 'crisis',  life for a severe MG patient in 1942 was no bowl of cherries --- with the effects of the medications sometimes worse than even the disease itself.)

So Dawson himself was thus also on a race against time to complete his mission before he died.

Now, unlike Hobby, Dr Dawson was a lapsed (Scottish-Canadian) Presbyterian.

But even a lapsed Scottish Presbyterian remains a force of nature if they are convinced that it is their duty to to do what is right.

A duty-bound Scottish Presbyterian of the old school - albeit lapsed and dying and debilitated  : dear God,  the poor British and American governments never stood a chance.

So the team won the principle of "Penicillin-for-all" , even during Total War, and then something unexpectedly marvellous happened.

For it turned out that the true miracle of this miracle drug wasn't its biological specificity and non-toxicity , marvellous as they were.

No, the biggest miracle of "Penicillin-for-all" was its price , or rather lack of price.

This was a lifesaver that stopped life-threatening contagious infections in their tracks, a lifesaver as cheap as water, a lifesaver literally 'too cheap to meter' .

If penicillin had been so expensive only the well-off could afford it, many poor people world-wide would have remained infected with the most virulent strains, acting as the pools of supply that kept many life-threatening infections endemic or epidemic for milleniums.

But by stopping tens of millions of life-threatening infections world-wide because penicillin was so cheap, billions of the rest of us got that wonderful medical free ride known as Herd Immunity.

Finally the potentially threat from endemic and epidemic infectious fatal diseases that had hung over the heads of every family - rich or poor - for thousands of years like the Sword of Damocles were gone.

But this miracle almost didn't happen - we almost lost "Penicillin-for-all" thanks to a few profit-driven Big Pharma executives and a lot of mean-spirited doctors and scientists from the Allied side of the war.

Henry Dawson and his little band didn't do it alone of course - but every fire needs a tiny spark - sometimes many sparks.

The smallest Manhattan Project was that repeated tiny spark - and the lives of billions continue to be bettered for it ....

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