Thursday, November 12, 2015

the ACCIDENTIAL Manhattan Project

 I can't say I was exactly wrong the last eight years to emphasize how different from the much more famous (atomic) Manhattan Project was Henry Dawson's own tiny wartime Manhattan project, involving a little of his homegrown penicillin and a handful of SBE patients.

But I do now think I got it far more right the first time I test-drove the idea of 'comparing and contrasting' the penicillin and atomic Manhattan Projects, back about nine years ago.

For my point then was - my point now is - that both the atomic and penicillin projects started off as very small fry indeed and only became huge when the Allied governments (atomic) or the world's public (penicillin) adopted them as their own.

The diffident Henry Dawson, unlike the ebullient Leo Szilard, would be the very last living being in the Universe to write a letter to FDR demanding he provide the funds and backing for a potentially hugely complex and expensive new project.

No, I think Dawson only wanted to satisfactorily confound the too-narrowly conceived Allied war efforts, inside the privacy of his own mind.

However he did fully intend to publicly confound his scientific colleagues over their equal narrow mindedness, by inclusively employing the help of unspeakable fungus penicillium to save the lives of the life-unworthy-of-life SBE sufferers.

Citizen Hearst meets Citizen Colitti

 It was only three years after Dawson started his effort that one of his former arthritic patients surgical resident Dr Dante Colitti , then working in a small hospital a mile down the road from Dawson, decided to emulate Dawson's wartime resistance to the medical establishment and with that, the fur really began flying.

Dawson had successfully broken the wartime medical establishment's ban on using government supplied penicillin for SBE patients for over a year without ending up in court.

The government might win the case legally but knew it would lose massively in the court of public opinion.

Dawson was to busy trying not to die too quickly from his terminal illness (MG) to want to pick additional fights in the courts.

But Colitti, a young Italian Catholic with a hunched back (due to TB arthritis of the spine), had hardly been treated fairly by the WASP medical elite and he took his revenge by calling up the flagship newspaper of the Hearst empire, asking them to get some of the tightly rationed penicillin for a baby about to die.

The baby wasn't even his patient and he was only a lowly medical resident, but perhaps because he was getting married that month and thinking of soon making lots of babies of his own, his heart went out to the little girl's heartbroken parents.

 There is an age old adage in the music business that there is no such thing as a merely 'local' breakout in New York City  : "In New York, if a record is breaking wide, its breaking stateside !"

 Similarly in the news business.

The Hearst flagship, the paper that once started the Spanish American war merely to provide cutlines for its war illustrator, again pulled all the stops, calling the top dog in Washington, and then having a speed limit busting police escort, complete with screaming sirens on all the way, deliver the released penicillin from mid-State New Jersey to upper Manhattan in record time.

'Pictures at eleven, and twelve and one' --- together with a minute by minute running commentary until the girl's fever broke.

 "Seven Hours to Live" shouted the headline in this paper and soon in all the Hearst publications, stateside.

Thanks to friendly Neutral diplomats in Washington, soon mothers in even tightly controlled nations at war like Russia, Japan and Germany knew all about little Patty Malone.

Knew all this new miracle drug penicillin and firmly told their husbands they wanted it too, like yesterday.

Doctor Mom indeed .

The only medical journal that ever really matters is the Ladies' Home Journal

The men in government and business hemmed and hawed but in the end bowed down and started making penicillin -albeit  in slow motion - until the wife of the boss of Pfizer told him to shake a leg and get a move on.

For the sake of his beloved daughter. Beloved dead daughter. A girl who died needlessly of meningitis easily treated by penicillin if only Alexander Fleming had got up off his duff back in 1929.

As Dr Dawson was always reminding the still grieving father as well.

Soon 80% of all the penicillin that landed on the D-Day beaches was made in the plant that Pfizer's John L Smith built in record time, with lots of help from the WPB (Wartime Production Board).

In three years of hard work, Dawson's tiny project had only treated ten SBE patients, saved five, and morally moved only three people.

Two you've already met : Colitti and Smith.

The third was another arthritis patient of Dawson's : famous industrialist Floyd Odlum, who luckily had the ears of some very important people in the WPB.

So perhaps more by accident than design, the dying doctor and his tiny team of helpers had started a massive movement that would soon force the wartime Allies to reverse policy.

Now rather than restrict penicillin to a narrow weapon of war, they would begin to use it as a broad vessel of diplomacy : flying huge bombers with teaspoons of penicillin inside to save dying babies all over the world.

Pax Penicillia

For years the Allies had made much hollow sounding rhetoric about equality and inclusiveness - now Dawson had forced them to walk the talk.

Both Szilard and Dawson's Manhattan Projects had started off tiny and ended up very big.

But I think you will agree that only Dawson's project ended up well...

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