Monday, September 7, 2015

Dawson's "small penicillin", a cure for a disease forty years in search of a name

Until the very end of WWII, Sir Charles Lyell ruled the intellectuals' world unchallenged.

The 19th century victory of his claim about the uniformity of the past, present and future geological worlds, over other scientists who said the world had faced past global catastrophes, laid the groundwork for Modern Science's hubristic confidence about a predictable future much like the present and the past.

But the technological development of unstoppable V2 rockets and of atomic bombs, together with evidence from Auschwitz of no limits to human evil, led a small number of people to begin to doubt the impossibility of planet wide catastrophes.

Because, rather like the Spanish Flu at the end of WWI and just as many earlier pandemics had done, it was clear that death could now reach quickly into even the most remote parts of the world.

That, at least, had to be counted as some sort of global - rather than national or continental - catastrophe.

There are no "above the fray" Neutrals and Isolationist nations during global pandemics.


But it was not until ten years later, when drifting "fallout" from a remote Pacific island's nuclear testing killed a distant Japanese fisherman and then drifted all over the world, putting poison in the milk of children worldwide, that the general population begin to believe in the possibilities of globe-wide total catastrophes.

I was only a tiny milk-drinking child back then and believe me, I instantly believed ------- and kept right on believing.

Adult scientists back then - 99% of them anyway, did not.

(Not to say they didn't fear the human urban impact of all-out nuclear war, but they felt its rural and biological impact would be relatively small and short term.)

But it was not until the mid 1980s, forty years after WWII's end, that adult scientists developed the wisdom of children.

(But only because most adult scientists of the mid Eighties were themselves the small children of the earlier poison-milk baby boom era.)

Global Catastrophe

Suddenly, any number of credible possible global catastrophes arrived in the scientific mind, seemingly all at once.

The possibility of a nuclear war caused global Winter. The disaster of imminent man-made runaway global warming.

Our current inability to detect or stop the arrival of another massive asteroid, just like the one that was now believed to have caused one of our biggest ever mass extinctions.

A credible scientific explanation (Dawson's HGT) for why microbe resistance to brand new antibiotics happened so fast around the world and why it wasn't ever going to stop, meaning that the possibility of global pandemics was back - and in an age of widespread jet travel, likely to spread very fast indeed.

Evidence we were drawing down essential reserves of underwater water far far faster than Nature was replacing them and that we were exploiting most species and bio-habitats well beyond the breaking point.

And from the world of geology, Lyell's speciality, much acceptance - finally - that the past was filled with as many catastrophes as the future now promised to deliver us.


The new phrase "biodiversity" filled the airwaves.

A little late - because the fight for human diversity - civil rights for all kinds of non-white peoples, for women and for gays - had been going on for years.

Finally now some talk of civil rights for animals, plants, rocks and sky.

People frantically began to seek to maintain and to diversify our portfolio of human and biological choices, rather than always trying to drain the gene pool of all but the 'right' choices for a 'predictable' future.

Because with the future suddenly so catastrophically unpredictable, humanity decided it did need a Plan B - even a Plan C,D,E,F,G.

Dawson's project wasn't successful in '45 ?!

Dawson himself had died in 1945, forty years before his project was successful.

I know on one level this is impossible to accept - because his secondary claim that wartime microbe made penicillin should be made available to all in need was widely accepted before his death.

But I don't believe that was really what Dawson was trying to prove when he jumped his own team's protocol and suddenly started his quixotic manhattan project in October 1940.

A bit ironically, Dawson actually had a closer connection to Lyell than most scientists for Nova Scotia was important in the development of Lyell's work and Dawson's childhood next door neighbour had actually met (and very notably impressed) Lyell.

But the "show-me" Dawson was always more about concrete action than abstract theory and so he didn't use terms like biological diversity and gene pool though they were in (extremely limited) use in advanced circles in the early 1940s.

But the concepts of not putting all your eggs in one basket was ageless, as was the dictate to hold a diversified portfolio of investments.

Dawson merely thought the mainstream 1940s scientific emphasis on picking a few winners and binning the rest as losers was unfair to the losers who had a right to live as much as others and in any case, they had as many, albeit different, talents as the current winners.

His day job was getting more and better care for the truly forgotten small people among medicine's patients, the chronically ill poor, and his personal scientific interests were focused on the incredible but ignored abilities of life's smallest beings, the microbes.

In October 1940, Dawson combined his day job and his personal scientific interests, when he advanced two (much contested) claims that I encapsulate in the single phrase "small penicillin".

One was that the small microbes could make penicillin at least as good as the big human chemists might - and a heck of a lot faster in a war crisis and so they should be allowed to mass produce, now !

 The other was that wartime penicillin should go to everybody, the small people as well as the big people, IE not just to the Allies's lightly wounded front line troops.

Because (a) it was the right thing to do and (b) the Allies must be morally, not merely militarily, superior to the Nazis if they are truly win over the world and we mustn't use 'war' as an excuse to abandon the powerless who are ill , as the Nazis did when they went to war.

"Small Penicillin" &  Biodiversity

Small-made penicillin for small as well as big patients, hence "small penicillin".

In effect, Dawson said Humanity's global portfolio of life-worthy-of-life must make room for small microbes and small people, making a case for human and biological diversity long before it became fashionable.

In practise, when the Allies did give wartime microbe penicillin to 'the least of of us', they tacitly accepted Dawson's case for human and biological diversity, even if they couldn't make the leap to say so intellectually for another forty years ...

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