Monday, December 29, 2014

Manhattan's OTHER Project : Gotham's penicillin un-superheroes (and why they are ignored by academics)

If another secretive, undemocratic, big science Manhattan Project is more likely to cause a global environmental disaster (think nuclear winter or geo-engineering) than prevent it - then does the experiences of wartime Gotham have anything at all to still teach us, as we face global climate meltdown ?

Well, unbeknownst to virtually all, Manhattan actually had another ( far different) wartime project that still has lessons for today.

Its global effect were almost as big as that of the much better known atomic Manhattan Project, but by pointed contrast to it, it was near universally always warmly received worldwide.

Because Manhattan's real enduring gift to humanity during and after the war years was not The Bomb (or the infamous Norden Bombsight) but rather bog-ordinary cheap available-to-all public domain natural penicillin. You know - the stuff the academics are always telling us that the British gave us.

Now I sometimes joke that the only reasons the Scandinavians didn't give a joint Nobel Peace Prize to Stalin and Hitler was because the Nordics ran out of time - the guys died first.

But joking aside, the Nobel prize choices have rarely stood up well to the test of time.

Admittedly, Mr Nobel's naive requirements that everything significant that is discovered or invented was brought to mass use or mass knowledge by no more than three (still living) individuals does force the Nobel prize selection committees into mindless contortions.

Still - what of earth were the Nordics thinking - or not thinking - when the medicine committee gave the 1945 Nobel prize for penicillin to Fleming and Florey ?

After his 1928 discovery, Alec Fleming's main contribution was to tell everybody within earshot (for 15 wasted years) that penicillin would only work if used as a topical antiseptic (it doesn't work well there) and would NEVER work if taken internally (when in fact it works miraculously well there.)

Moreover he said it would never be useful for patients until artificially synthesized when in fact it never has : all clinical penicillin and the bulk of all of today's antibiotics (yes even today !) are still derived from natural penicillin made by fungus.

In this particularly obtuse claim, he was more than fully supported by chemist manque Howard Florey.

In fact Florey led the Allies' wartime charge to repeatedly try and to repeatedly fail to make penicillin by artificial (patentable) methods, rather than to simply produce enough natural (public domain) penicillin to meet current desperate wartime needs.

And Florey and Fleming, both strong supporters of the Conservative Party, fully backed the Conservative politicians in Britain's wartime coalition government who wanted to limit wartime penicillin production to only lightly wounded front line troops.

None for severely wounded troops or any home front civilians in Allied nations and colonies; none for civilians in Neutral, Occupied or Enemy countries - none for Allied POWs, let alone for enemy POWs !

All this because it had been determined that diverting British resources to set up enough British natural penicillin bottle plants in unused buildings to supply all military and civilian needs for the world (and thus to secure a postwar Pax Britannica based on this wartime humanitarian effort) would cost about ten million pounds.

And that was also enough for at least one or two more additions to Bomber Command's already many heavy bomber squadrons.

Since 1932 and Prime Minister Baldwin's famous speech, it had been become the 40th Article of the Conservative Party faith that 'the bomber always gets through' and that destroying people and not saving them was the Conservative way to the moral high ground and winning any war.

But what really made wartime penicillin the world's best known/best loved medicine is that as the last dying act of the New Deal, a new Pax Americana had suddenly made cheap non-patented (natural) penicillin abundantly available to all - wartime friend and foe alike.

But none of these good guys , none of the Americans (and a Canadian) centred in NYC who were mostly responsible for this boon to humanity, ever received a Nobel Prize or public acclaim for the miracle of cheap-penicillin-for-all : only the bad guys.

Because the good guys' approach couldn't have been more different than the atomic Manhattan project.

They were open about their intentions and pragmatically and morally committed to saving the little guy. They wasted little taxpayer money and resources and instead combined a 'little science' approach with a ruggedly low tech engineering style.

All of this was anathema to academics (including non scientists like historians) who wanted to ballyhoo the supposed wartime triumphs of heavily taxpayer funded basic science-big science as a way to getting the taxpayer to permanently fund their postwar hobbyhorses.

So - in a brazen conflict of interest and in violence to the known facts - academics have tended to give all the penicillin acclaim to the big science advocates (cum penicillin bad guys).

To those who were actually most dedicated to keeping wartime penicillin a much delayed, scarce and patented exclusive drug.

So Drs Florey and Fleming in Britain , along with Drs A N Richards and Chester Keefer in the States , got all the acclaim.

Logrolling is what they call this sort of stuff it in politics - I don't know what they call it inside the ivory tower bunker : false weighting of the scales of evidence maybe ?

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