Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A deliberately poetically inchoate protest

Dr Martin Henry Dawson clearly was not always a cautious person but he was always highly cautious in his public print and speech - a man more of concrete deeds than hollow words.

He didn't live into middle age, let alone live long enough to be safely retired (and with most of his senior colleagues safely dead) so he could at last write a rather frank account of the amazing events of forty years before.

One is left, therefore, to tease out for oneself what really lay behind Dawson's rather quixotic little alternative to the much bigger Manhattan Project.

And yet it may be all summed up right there - yes, there - did you not see it ? - there in that previous sentence.

Little versus Big.

It was an age, recall, of exalting all things Big - nothing more exciting for most people than to admire a new newspaper photo of a yet bigger or faster or heavier bridge, dam, warship, airplane, factory or what have you.

Big decisions (and total war decisions are always big decisions) were seen as best left to the Big people, in the Big Nations, who had the Big Corporations, the Big Universities and the Big Governments to best build the Big Factories needed to make the Big Machines that would win the war.

The rather better known Manhattan atomic Project is the perfect example, the example in spades.

But before the war, Dawson's entire career was all about exalting the small microbe's unexpectedly sophisticated abilities and all about exalting the worth of the much neglected institutionalized chronically ill.

So almost certainly in pointed contrast to the greater culture around him, Dawson's team was deliberately tiny,tiny,tiny.

Perhaps partly because he rightly feared the restraining strings that would come with any money, he never seemed to have sought out private foundation financial support, let alone government support.

(That kind of external 'institutional backstopping' would have meant his university and hospital would have had to match up with proper room for the cultured climate growing of 700 penicillium flasks.But then his school and hospital would also have the power to throttle his project at birth.)

Because he had not just one but two kinds of tenure, professor cum attending physician Dawson could remain small (but big enough to get the job done) while remaining fully independent.

But he could also make a subtle point - that great deeds could also come from the small, the poorly funded, the amateur, the DIY, the homemade and the artisan, the overlooked and the forgotten.

"4Fs, Women and the Grace of God"

His team was only four (very busy) people in size - they alone grew the industrial pilot plant amounts of penicillium, extracted and semi-processed the penicillin, confirmed its potency and then injected it into Dawson's patients.

His proving up of this drug was a very far cry from the huge elaborate process, so dependent on the okays from many Big People, that even in 1940 shepherded a new drug from lab experiments into general clinical use.

And what a despicable drug too - the metabolical excrement from the much despised little fungoid growths so hated by everybody from Adolf Hitler to HP Lovecraft - a drug with a worldwide cultural taboo against it ever being injected into the holy temple of the human body.

Dawson's little team was about to inject this excrement from a little microbes into (wait for it !) some much despised little people - a Jew and a Black dying from SBE, a condition that was already on the Death Panel list of diseases to be denied scarce medicine in the event of a war.

Small,small,small -- tiny,tiny,tiny, tiny -- worthless,worthless,worthless -- dismissed,dismissed,dismissed.

It was as if Dawson lined up all the Big People and Big Institutions in the world, like they were puppies.

And then slowly and deliberately rubbed their noses in the tiny slimy worthlessness of his scheme....

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