Thursday, August 21, 2014

NATURAL vs SYNTHETIC ---- what war time audiences were really talking about when they talked about penicillin

My book "MANHATTAN NATURAL" isn't really a book about wartime penicillin --- there have already been dozens of those , all claiming they've covered the waterfront thoroughly.

Instead it is a book about the deep emotional wellsprings wartime audiences were inadvertently revealing as they debated whether or not "crude natural penicillin, now !" was preferable to "pure synthetic penicillin (maybe) sometime in the future".

So I have drawn great inspiration from Klaus Theweleit's classic "MALE FANTASIES".

In particular, I admire his bravery in speculating widely and wildly about the connections between post-WWI trashy/sub-literate Freikorps novels and the mindset of Modernity itself - and not just as Modernity as manifest in the Nazi regime.

Author Thomas Hager (in his DEMON UNDER THE MICROSCOPE) quotes Nobel winning biologist Peter Medawar as recalling wartime chemists dismissing natural penicillin as sort of dire relic from the Dark Ages, peasant medicine made by witches brewing it up in cauldrons in dark hidden basements somewhere.

This association of basements and working class rural uneducated women and natural penicillin runs right through almost every penicillin book - particularly in the selection of illustrations.

Photos of working class women are shown growing natural penicillin in dark deep dank cellars versus news-story-and-ad illustrations of educated men in white coats doing penicillin chemistry in pristine labs or turning electronic dials in porcelain white deep tank penicillin factories.

Briton Ronald Hare , a former co-worker of Fleming who had already had his own run-ins with Howard Florey in mid-1941 over his employer (Toronto's Connaught Labs) unwillingness to grow penicillin for Florey.

Now in late 1943, Hare had his shining moment (much against his will) as Canada's chosen man to visit the American effort to grow massive amounts of natural penicillin.

His 1970 book , THE BIRTH OF PENICILLIN , reflects none of the new PC-ness of that period.

His book is brisk, witty, vivid , wise but it sometimes jars - never more so than when he talks of visiting a penicillin plant in Brooklyn.

Wild emotion bubbles forth from deep inside his Edwardian childhood as he babbles about giant negresses labouring deep in the Stygian (Hades or underworld) gloom.

Penicillium juice (the original penicillin was not today's drug but rather the mostly water-based liquid that the penicillium mold had grown in) was widely - if incorrectly - seen by most scientists and doctors simply as the daily waste byproducts of slimy mold.

The fungus were known to 'foul their own nests' (as do all non-mobile micro beings) and the liquid itself was coloured a thick bright yellow very much like a mixture of baby poop and pee.

(Actually the drug penicillin itself is only produced by the fungus when it is stressed - usually when its food source is in short supply and it needs to keep bacterial competitors at bay.)

There is a long folk association of women as being at one with the dark wet places and processes located below the belt .

An association of women with the primitive, the emotional and irrational (intuition rather than logic), of the animal , of being putting on earth only to make babies and then change their nappies .

Set against it is the association of males as being above the belt - way above the belt - beings of the brain and the mind not of the heart and emotions, of mental processes not physical processes,creatures of urban civilization rather than of rural and animal like settings.

So we only see women workers in penicillin stories as the ones nurturing baby penicillium spores in dark dank basements, collecting basement slime mold poop.

By contrast, the men are always in white lab coats worked in pristine labs thoughtfully examining the contents of a chemical beaker while puffing thoughtfully on a pipe.

Klaus Theweleit would have no problem understanding why natural penicillin slime poop juice was not injected into the pristine temples of the human body to save lives for twelve wasted years - and still not widely used for another five to ten years.

He'd see it as much as about men fearing women as in collective humanity fearing the (non-existent) toxicity of natural penicillin.

Thomas Hager again : Nobel winning Gerhard Domagk from Germany spent two years after penicillin's triumph in 1945 still trying to prove that his man-made chemical synthetic sulfa drugs were far superior to this naturally produced slime poop.

One can imagine Domagk fuming that it is impossible for any primitive slimy creature from the deep to be smarter than the best of civilized mankind from the land that gave the world Mozart , Beethoven, Goethe, Kant and Hegel.

Put that way, one wonders why a cheap horror movie was never made in the Fifties about the penicillium slime that took over the world , roused from the dank depths by a massive atomic explosion.

Maybe they already have . And again. And yet again.

Now natural penicillin-hater Howard Florey never saw a b-grade horror movie in his life but he too shared this widely held horror at the sight or thought of slime .

Why ?

Klaus Theweleit again : the core of Modernity was a fear of the loss of firm borders - with littoral substances like mud and slime being at the symbolic heart of that phobia.

Littoral as in being neither 100% liquid or 100% solid but having indefinitely varying qualities of both.

Clever slime from the muddy depths was this phobia - in spades - and no wonder it made teeners quake with fear at a 1954 drive-in as much as it made Florey quake with fear at a natural penicillin nursery in 1944.

Now I think the explanation for the sharp rise of this slime phobia was the the plenitude of experiences thrown up in the explosive birth of Modern Global Progress in the very few years between 1875 and 1915.

I do not think any set of humans has ever experienced as much rapid and extensive change as the people living through that period did.

They reacted badly much of the time - rabid racism and eugenics being only part of their response.

Not nice, not acceptable but understandable.

And innocent life-saving penicillin simply got caught in the cross hairs....

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