Sunday, September 20, 2015

Obstetricians to post-Modernity

In Robert Clyde Allen's "Speaking of Soap Opera", he quotes one study of Golden Age radio soap operas that found over one half of all adult males in the shows were medical doctors.

In medical science's own Golden Age, roughly one long generation from the mid 1870s to the mid 1960s (the era of Progress and Modernity), soap operas loved doctors because that single profession was freighted with all the expectations humanity had for its highest civilizations.

This fraternity, and this one alone, was expected to do the impossible : to bridge over the many contradictions inherent in the Modern concept of Progressive civilization.

On one hand, as laboratory medical scientists, they were expected to display an alpha-male sized commitment to "double blind randomized" rationality, objectivity and the pursuit of scientific progression regardless of what dark alleys it might lead humanity into.

On the other hand, as medical frontline clinicians, they were expected to act out a selflessness and empathy for the suffering of others at a level we had traditionally only expected from Saints.

Since double blind randomized objectivity and agape empathy are fundamentally opposed, the bridge was bound to fail, particularly in times of extreme stress.

Such as happened during WWII.

In 1939, Josef Mengele had earned both a PhD and a MD and had started his career as a scientific researcher in genetics.

The son of a wealthy industrialist, he had imbibed the best of German high culture since childhood.

So he greatly enjoyed playing the best of German classical music, a love of visual art and engaging in Nordic sports like skiing, as well as a drive to excel in science.

But then he was called up for wartime military service before the ambitious young scientist had done a large enough piece of research to earn his "Habilitation", the post-PhD certification required before he could be appointed to a prestigious academic research position.

Mengele worried he was not getting any younger as the war unexpectedly dragged on, but then fate intervened.

He was wounded, supposedly too bad an injury for further front line service, and got assigned to Auschwitz.

Most of the SS doctors there did the minimum required.

However, the intensely ambitious Mengele saw that if he ingratiated himself with the camp superiors by his high energy level and his total commitment to its racist brutality, he could then have free rein over any sets of twins among the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews shipped into Auschwitz to either be killed upon arrival or after a short period of brutally hard labour.

No previous student of twins science, a particular obsession with geneticists then as now, had been able to freely kill their subjects before.

This greatly expanded the invasiveness of the scientific questions that could be asked about twins.

What a splendid Habilitation Mengele could produce ! - his intellectual reputation made and a top research position secured --- this in a culture that put "Professor" above even General and only slightly below Fuhrer.

Mengele didn't stop with ingratiating himself with his SS bosses - he ntoably did the same with the young children twins in his study - until he cold-bloodedly disposed of them, like so much scientific rubbish left behind after a successful experiment.

Do anything, say anything, but get the badly-needed scientific evidence : the perpetually wonderful ends justify the short term pain of the means.

Medical scientists in Dawson's America were saying just this during the same period as Mengele was operating - but they always stopped short for directly murdering their charges as he did.

Slow quiet off-stage deaths by deliberate neglect was more their cuppa.

Not to say that Mengele wasn't a hypocrite, but somehow, his hypocrisy seemed at a lower level than their brand.

Nevertheless it was his hyped-up version of the then fully approved normal scientific mindset that has put Mengele (and not his American fellow colleagues in evil) into a very small community of celebrities that remain known all over the world with just a one word name : Beethoven, Hitler, Mengele, Bono, Elvis, Madonna.

Ego, ambition, fame, celebrity : it was these drives that lifted this rather typical example of SS member into the very top Parthenon of all time Evil.

By contrast, all these drives seemed lacking in Dr Henry Dawson.

Diffident, modest, caring, considerate instead.

But also quietly, determinately stubborn in seeing that the small and the overlooked got their propers.

In 1939, he was 15 years older than Mengele, already established as (and probably content to remain) a tenured middle level academic researcher and teaching hospital attending physician.

He had a good national (and even international reputation) in a tiny backwater of mid-century medical research : helping those chronically ill with arthritis.

If it was a backwater in peacetime, all the more in wartime.

A brave, decorated, twice wounded WWI military hero, he yearned to help fight Hitler but realistically what could a middle-aged man do in the frontlines of combat?

If not then in the sphere of military combat against the evil of Nazi values, then perhaps he could fight it in the moral sphere.

For Dawson saw that many medical researchers in the democratic West seemed to have drunk almost as much of the kool-aid of 'seeking scientific advance without moral restraints on the treatment of experiment subjects', as had scientists in Germany.

So Dawson decided to restore the dignity of the small and weak by deliberately contesting such values in America (and by implication in Germany as well).

He did so by (A) ignoring the scientific consensus and deliberately choosing to work with a much despised household pest, the primitive and small penicillium mold, rather than wait for commercial synthetic penicillin (which in fact never did come - not during the war or after.)

And rather than research the use of penicillium juice to cure unfaithful 1A servicemen of overseas-acquired VD, he sought instead to save the lives of a group of small and weak patients, the 4Fs of the 4Fs : working class youths dying of SBE, endocarditis caused by Rheumatic Fever.

The medical establishment were already writing off the poor SBEs as 'not a wartime priority' for scarce medical resources.

In fact, that elite was planning to keep all penicillin successes out of both the scientific and popular media, so it could be later unleashed as a secret military weapon of war, being produced (synthetically) in such small quantities that it could only aid the lightly wounded frontline Allied troops.

Dawson wanted primitive natural (un-patented) penicillin produced right now, in massive amounts, and given to anyone in a war-torn world who would have their lives saved by it.

The terminally ill Doctor Dawson (I did mention he was dying all through his project didn't I ?) successfully held off his own body and his own government just long enough to the Allied governments come around.

Just before he died, they did mass produce wartime natural penicillin and they did deliver it (by diverted-from-war bombers if need be) to save all those dying for lack of it.

This worldwide Penicillin "moral" Diplomacy did much to separate many Neutral nations from their fascination with fascism and thus helped secure and hold together 'the coalition of all the talents' needed to defeat the entrenched Axis powers.

But Dawson died as war's end and the Official Version of the wartime penicillin story (written by the losers who backed synthetic penicillin and restricted production and won the Nobel as a result) was able to keep him out of the re-telling.

But while sophisticated professionals fell then and still do fall for the Official Version, ordinary people (and little children) never did.

Behind all the Official Version's photographs of huge shiny penicillin-making machinery in oil refinery styled factories, the little people still correctly detected that tiny penicillin fungus factories were actually doing all the hard lifting.

And thus while the best in Civilization were busy bombing and burning as many ordinary people and little children as possible, some incredibly small and weak and supposedly 'simple' beings were saving more lives than even WWII could kill.

So it came to be that via popular public opinion rather than by scientific elite fiat, that Penicillin (and not the invisible Dawson,) joined the Parthenon of single-named worldwide celebrities.

And quite rightly, because Dawson's agape selflessness was the very opposite of Mengele's celebrity seeking.

Still, from opposing moral ends, Mengele's evil celebrity science and Dawson's selfless invisible science together put the fatal post into Modernity after 1945 and created our present age of cherishing diversity rather than cherishing eugenics....

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