Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Dr Martin Henry Dawson, MD , LLB (Hon) : always about defending the underdog ?

From would-be lawyer (destined to defend the underdog) to a doctor and scientist defending the underdog ?

With no private papers available, it is hard to know for sure what really motivated pioneering medical scientist Dr (Martin) Henry Dawson, the first person to ever put DNA to work in a test tube and the first to ever inject an antibiotic (Penicillin) into a patient.

Dr Dawson, MD was actually enrolled in Arts at Dalhousie University, before the Great War changed everything.

But, from what we know of his adult personality and from his best marks in university, I would see him, if the war hadn't intervened, more as a university teacher - perhaps in history or perhaps teaching theory in law school.

Unusually for a scientist, he took no sciences courses as an undergraduate - except one in biology (where he topped his class).

His skill in German turned out to be very helpful - no great scientist before 1945 could really succeed if they couldn't read scientific German with smooth facility.

But his best courses are in areas like history, economics and philosophy.

It is important to recall he got his wartime BA degree after attending relatively few classes because he had such good marks in the few courses he did complete, before he left for the effort overseas.

Henry Dawson was far too studious to ever stop at a mere BA and then go on to teach high school - yet he never (so far as we can tell) formally enrolled in the pre-law, pre-engineering or pre-med options at Dal.

But ever loyal to his slightly older brother Howard, he might have joined him at law school but for the war.

Yet he didn't seem to have the commanding personality needed to be a successful courtroom lawyer defending the underdog.

And he certainly never ever wanted to be well off, let alone rich, as in 'rich corporate lawyer'.

But while at Dal, Dawson was busy helping teaching English to various foreign seamen at the YMCA mission to seamen, perhaps parallel to his brother Howard's similar involvement in evangelical good works.

And for what it is worth, his older brother Frank, while an engineering Dean in the American Mid West, so impressed a pioneering black engineering student with his non-prejudiced kindnesses, that the man fulsomely remembered Frank Dawson years later in his autobiography.

The entire family was not military minded but when they were needed - when poor little bleeding Belgium was betrayed by the Hun - all five boys stepped into the breach.

Belgium - again an underdog.

Henry was a (medically untrained) private in a university organized overseas military hospital at first.

Later Dawson was made an officer in the infantry and while badly wounded in the foot, still gave up his place in a stretcher for another much more wounded ordinary soldier, (an underdog) this after solving a battlefield crisis by running about on his wounded foot for ten hours.

His foot never really recovered as a result, but he received the Military Cross with citation for this selfless act.

Then at the very end of his wartime service and wounded yet again, Dawson changed his peacetime occupation from just "student" to "medical student".

His career changed - but I argue - not his urge to helping the underdog.

His lifelong concerns, as a ward doctor, were the chronically ill poor - then as now a low priority in high prestige teaching hospitals.

Underdogs of the medical world.

As a medical scientist, his interest was in the underdogs of the underdog microbes - then universally seen as primitive, primeval, weak, simple, small --- the ultimate in the living fossils.

So why then were they still here ?

If evolutionary theory was correct, Dawson wondered, shouldn't the weak and the small have long ago been vanquished by the big and the brutal ?

The microbes were once again the underdogs, the Rodney Dangerfields, of the Living World.

As a medical scientist, Dawson was particularly concerned about the harmless - hence uninteresting to other medical scientists - avirulent commensal bacteria.

Avirulent versions of 'normally' pathogenic bacteria were considered to be defective versions (of a lifeform already -see above - considered to be a living fossil).

So why then ,asked Dawson, were they still here inside us, often inside us for perhaps our entire lives -- undestroyed ?

Here is the contemporary explanation that Dawson objected to - see if you too can see its flaws in basic logic :

(1) The pneumonia bacteria can only survive in or on us - we are its only home.

(2) The normal variant of the bacteria that causes lung pneumonia and blood poisoning is deadly virulent and lives alone, floating in the blood and human intercell liquids, usually killing us (and them) in a week or two.

(3) The disease of lung pneumonia is not really contagious -- we can't really catch it from the coughing of a dying man -and remember with his death, so to die the bacteria (see #1 above).

(4) The abnormal, defective, avirulent, version harmlessly exists in tight massive colonies on the inner surfaces of our nose and throat - sometimes for our whole lives, without ever making us sick.

(5) We all have these harmless pneumonia bugs in our noses some of the time -  some of us all our lives - and when we have them, we are known as 'carriers' of these harmless commensal pneumonia bacteria.

Dawson wondered how a short life of a week or two in the lungs or blood streams of just a few of us (for even before penicillin, pneumonia bugs only killed perhaps 8% of us) could qualify as the normal form of existence for this bug.

All this, when 100% of us had the abnormal quote unquote bug in our noses for periods ranging from months and months to decades and decades ?

Haven't the normal definitions of usual and unusual been deliberately up-ended to suit an universally accepted but ultimately bizarre medical theory ?

Dawson's alternative explanation was that whether floating about alone in liquid or clinging in masses to walls, these were just normal evolutionary responses to changed niches.

If bacteria do the shapeshifting so quickly, it is not really just that they are much more plastic in the forms that they can adopt than we are capable of - it is also the simple math that a new generation to them can mean 25 minutes later not 25 years later as with us.

As a result, evolutionary response to a new crisis can happen a million times faster with them than us.

If we are honest with ourselves, an evolutionary response time like that is a big advantage and a big reason why these living fossils are still around.

Dawson spent his life tracking down the variants of bacteria that he believed demonstrated why these supposed underdogs were really Life's evolutionary topdogs.

He was the first, or among the first, to look at things like DNA-HGT,quorum sensing, molecular mimicry, CWD bacteria, biofilms and persisters.

Three quarters of a century or more later, those are still cutting edge scientific topics.

In 1940, scientific opinion was again convinced the underdog fungal slimes were incapable of making penicillin as efficiently and as cheaply as the topdog chemists of advanced human civilizations could.

Dawson disagreed - pioneering the Antibiotics Age - when he injected their 'primitive' penicillin into Aaron Alston and Charles Aronson on October 16 1940.

He was right - the topdog chemists failed totally and the underdog slime still makes all the basis of our lifesaving beta-lactam antibiotics to this very day.

When the Allied medical-political elite agreed that wartime penicillin would only go to the topdog frontline troops, Dawson characteristically objected and said all of us, dying for lack of penicillin, should receive it, war or not.

Dawson was himself dying but he gave up his life to - once again - fight for the underdog.

A life full of variations but always with that same consistency of conduct ....

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