Saturday, July 18, 2015

Dawson was, in fact, the THIRD (reluctant but duty bound) leader of the tiny Manhattan penicillin Project

In September 1940, fearing the internment of German Jewish refugee scientists - even possibly those with recent American citizenship - was bound to follow the panicky British Empire decision to most of its German refugees from Hitler, biochemist Dr Karl Meyer became the first leader of what was to become the four year long Manhattan penicillin Project.

Dr Meyer was determined to find some sort of way to prove to the American war machine that he was too valuable to intern.

And finally purifying a drug that could kill the few militarily important pathogen bacteria that the hot new Sulfa drugs could not, would do just that.

Purifying a natural substance is sometimes by far the most difficult step on the road to then synthetizing and patenting it.

Any clinical testing could wait until the substance was safely purified.

For now, what Meyer and his assistant Eleanor Chaffee needed most from their two microbiologists (doctors Dawson and Hobby) was their highly practised skills in growing microbes.

And then later, their other well honed skill in measuring the bacteria-killing powers of any substances Meyer's chemical skills threw up.

But all that changed in early October 1940, when new patient A. (Leroy) Alston heard of the project and in a very real sense, hijacked the leadership of the project.

Leroy was a young black man from Harlem, dying of then invariably fatal SBE (subacute bacterial endocarditis) the disease that made Rheumatic Fever the leading killer of young people until the 1960s.

Significantly most of those deaths occurred among the poor, immigrants and minorities.

And Leroy didn't like the idea of accepting a SBE death as inevitable, just the assigned fate for America's poor and minorities.

Didn't like it at all - not one bit.

And Leroy was just the sort of person - dying or not - to be able to make significant waves.

He was raised by a poor widow in Harlem who sometimes got waitressing work - but Leroy held down a middle class job at a white commercial insurance firm all through the Dirty Thirties.

A first class athlete in many different sports, he also founded and ran a pioneering track and field club made up of members from the Harlem's black working class.

That club, Harlem's Mercury Athletic Club, competed successfully, not just against the nation's top black (middle class) universities but also against the top white teams as well.

To Leroy, it was always much more than just athletic success - he self consciously sought out obstacles to the ability for blacks to compete on an equal terms with whites - and then challenged them.

In a word, Leroy was a fervent Civil Rights activist - from the Thirties era.

The reason for his unexpected success is best explained by going back to the High Schools that all of us have experienced.

The Jocks cum Preppies in my High School (and probably in your school as well) were indeed mostly made up of kids from the community's best off families - but by no means exclusively.

What they really held in common was not income or race but a winning combination of physical and social agility - they moved gracefully and persuaded gracefully.

By contrast I knew many kids in my high school, from the top families, with all the family resources in the world, were seemingly just born shy, awkward and socially inept.

Leroy was just one of High School Life's natural born leaders and orators.

And in this particular case, this natural born leader had an audience of just one person to persuade : Dr M (Henry) Dawson, senior of the two microbiologists on Meyer's tiny four person team.

Dawson was also the only member with clinical (ward) privileges - and at a relatively high level too.

He was the only one on the team with both the legal right and the practical ability within the hospital culture to inject new untested un-purified medicine to a patient without his superiors putting up (too) much of a fuss.

Even in the most research oriented teaching hospitals, the frontline ward doctor directing patient care stands far higher in the informal hierarchy than does the most senior of the supporting staff, such as the microbiologists and biochemists back in the labs.

And Dawson had just been elevated to associate attending physician status, with an entire admission ward under his direct control and yet he had never really exercised his new powers so far.

Leroy couldn't help noticing all the recent publicity and fundraising dollars devoted to Polio, which killed far less than did Rheumatic Fever/SBE, but affected predominantly white kids from the hyper-clean and spacious suburbs rather than ethnic minorities crowded into inner city tenements.

Rheumatic Fever, by contrast, by 1940 was getting far less attention and funding than had been traditionally the case.

This made him angry and as it happened, it made Dawson even angrier.

Dawson had long seen a long slow shift away from charity to self help cum narrow self interest in the world generally and his belief was well supported by the facts.

The case of polio was particularly instructive.

Usually the March of Dimes is seen as an example of progress in human affairs : the (usually middle class) families of patients with a particular disease banding together to act as a advocacy and fundraising group for their relatives's disease.

But in an earlier age, middle class people donated money freely to help people in need who they didn't even know - this sort of selfless (agape) giving is the true definition of charity - not something you do to help your nearest and dearest or to get a tax deduction.

Hospitals - like Columbia Presbyterian where Dawson worked - had once freely treated those in most need of help with the least funds to pay for it.

Now it only treated the poor if their cases were unique enough to teach the (mostly middle class) medical students well enough to ensure them of a lifetime high income and higher status.

Similarly nations had once went to war - heedless of the cost - to battle to defend the rights of the smallest,weakest nations like Belgium to survive.

Now nations stood silently, bystanders, as Belgium and other small nations got gobbled up, saying it wasn't in their nation's self interest to intervene.

And America's medical schools, like Columbia Presbyterian, in that Fall of 1940, were moving away from their increasingly weak efforts towards Social Medicine (medical research aiding the weakest members of society, regardless of their ability to pay).

Instead they were moving towards War Medicine (medical research oriented to aiding the most fit members in society - her soldiers.)

But Dawson's anger - though in keeping with his character he usually kept it carefully reined in and undercover - was also directed at his colleagues for dismissing his research into the ability of microbes to do many things that the most advanced human civilizations were incapable of.

Meyer in a sense was partially a mouthpiece for such conventional beliefs.

The idea that penicillin was not safe to inject into humans until it was purified by humans was hardly his alone - it was universal in the worldwide medical community since 1928.

But Dawson began to reason that the fungus had probably been making penicillin for hundreds of millions of years and had probably got it down to a science.

After all, he probably reminded Meyer, they already successfully made penicillin at normal atmospheric pressures and normal temperatures and without strong expensive toxic reagents - not something Meyer, even if he was to become totally successful, could ever likely claim.

Dawson had two hands - in his quiet passively aggressive way , on a day when no bosses were around - Draft Registration Day October 16 1940, he could give the world two fingers.

Reluctantly, quietly but firmly, Dawson became the third leader of the project.

On that day, Dawson would give the world's first ever penicillin injections, ushering the Age of Antibiotics.

And do so by using (a) a medicine made by conventional evolutionary biology's under-estimated underdogs (tiny penicillium cells) to aid (b) society's under-estimated underdogs - Jewish and black youths from NYC's working class ....

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