Monday, February 9, 2015

1945's Natural Penicillin - and 1945's synthetic Nuclear Weapons - birthed 1960s Environmental Movement

No one who studies the matter doubts that mid-1950s fears about global fallout was the spur to today's environmental movements (and related human rights movements) that question the value of unbridled white European technology and science.

But you will have to be very,very old indeed to accept that 1945's unexpected triumph of natural penicillin from tiny primitive basement slime over the best chemical minds and laboratories in the world hit as hard a death blow to western scientism and hubris as the fallout from 1956's Castle Bravo nuclear test ever did.

In fact, you'd have to be born in 1920 - or older - to really remember when the whole world was convinced (circa 1933 or so) that male chemists (and male physicists soon too) could and would make anything Mother Nature could make - but better, cheaper, easier.

Womb envy would disappear and Penis envy would reign erect - but only if males found any further need to keep women around.

In 1930, for example, the much honored Dr Willis Whitney, a chemist who ran one of the world's first and biggest research labs for General Electric said chemists can probably make anything they can conceive of and many things they do not yet conceive of.

Soon, for example, milk - which he described it as buggy and dirty - would be gone ---  made from clean chemical elements in modern clean factories - not in dirty inefficient milk glands.

Milk - that ultimate symbol of female-only-ness - Whitney just happens to pick on it and not any of millions of other potential compounds and mixtures to focus upon.

Sheer coincidence, say most of today's male historians - still.

Now basement slime hardly seems particularly female or male or anything much to do with us humans.

But look again at the images of wartime penicillin.

Almost all the images of those tending the naturally grown penicillium fungus are women - in fact young nubile fertile working class 'girls' .

But the more chemical side of wartime penicillin shows stainless steel containers and lots of knobs and dials tended by stern faced middled aged middle class men in suits and white lab coats.

Nobel winner Peter Medawar remembers chemists semi-privately describing the idea of making live-saving penicillin naturally (with women gently nurturing the tender young fungi) as being like a return to the Middle Ages and Witches' Brews.

But human attempts to cheaply synthesis the relatively small (so thought relatively 'simple') penicillin molecule all failed during the war - and ever since.

So boomers like me grew up in the 1950s hearing that the antibiotics that had saved the lives of us children had all came from tiny bugs in jungle dirt, from sewage water or from basement slimes.

It planted a seed - I had no illusions about the wonders of chemistry growing up, the way I still did about safe cheap nuclear power for peace.

Natural penicillin helped turned this child into a young adult environmental activist.....

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