Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Connecting New York's PENICILLIN dots ...

Some authors are content to merely describe a long series of coincidental dots ---- other authors like to investigate to see if anything connects all those coincidental dots.

I am one of the latter : as many a TV police detective is fond of saying , my motto is "I don't believe in coincidences."

When I fell upon the story of Henry Dawson and wartime penicillin, I noticed that most of the twenty or so full length accounts of wartime penicillin always included the awkward fact that he (and not their hero Howard Florey) was the one to give history's first ever penicillin shots.

They briefly described that first needle in a sentence or paragraph or page or two --- and then always go on quickly to say that Dawson himself was dying of a terminal illness - 'so necessarily passes out of our story'.

The rest of their three hundred or page accounts have nothing further about Dawson's team.

Clearly they mentally needed a way to dispose of Dawson (his convenient terminal illness) without seriously engaging his team's more than five years of involvement with penicillin.

They already had a preconceived shape to their biography of Florey and so they mentally hardly wanted to investigate Dawson's story any further --- less it ruined their story's trim panty lines.

Dawson did indeed die from his illness - but that was only at the end of April 1945 , while his team effort can be said to have begun when team member Karl Meyer learned firsthand of Florey's successful curing of infected mice in the early summer of 1940 from Florey ex-team member Leslie Epstein (Falk).

Dawson in fact kept very active in pioneering penicillin work right up to his death.

His team - in particular Gladys Hobby at Pfizer and Thomas hunter at Columbia - continued to do important work with penicillin for a few more years , even after the war's end.

Now what struck me with the force of a hammer in the first few days of my research - even back ten years ago when I knew almost nothing about wartime penicillin - was the amazing number of truly significant events in the penicillin story that had happened in the New York City area.

And that they all seemed to be of a similar type - let us simply describe them as all taking a similarly non-conventional approach to solving the penicillin supply issue.

Set against the relatively inactivity of a similar nature from the other 1990 million other human beings on earth in 1940 , they certainly seemed statistically odd beyond measure to be unconnected.

Since Dawson was both the first and the most active of these NYC inside agitators , I began seeking out possible links between him (or his team members) and these other New York penicillin efforts.

I quickly found many, many direct connections - and am still doing so.

Who - just for a minor example - would have ever thought that Dr Anne Fulcher Hunter had both a husband (Thomas Hunter) working with Dawson at the heart of the natural penicillin effort at Columbia and a half brother (Donald Melville) working at the heart of the opposing synthetic penicillin effort with Vincent du Vigneaud at Cornell ?

Heatedly interesting discussions indeed around her family dinner table !

My book will make the case that Dawson's passion inspired many New York scientists and businessmen to step out of their conventional skins for once in their lives to try something very risky and yet very morally worthy.

Most of these people would probably freely admit that their wartime Dawson-inspired penicillin adventures were the high points of their careers and indeed of their entire lives.

So I will fully structure my book around Dawson and NYC, but unlike previous books, I will not damn contrasting efforts by a single sentence-paragraph-page of faint praise.

Florey, Fleming, the OSRD and Merck will all get plenty of space to make their case for limiting wartime penicillin use to frontline Allied soldiers only - and that only after it had been first perfected as a patentable synthetic analogue.

I will leave it to the reader (and to God) to decide which side made the better moral case ...

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