Saturday, December 5, 2015

Symbolic manhattan project's "Parable of Penicillin"

There can be absolutely no doubt about the 'concreteness' of the the atomic Manhattan Project.

Indeed one can argue the specific 1940s term "Manhattan Project" has today morphed into a general shorthand for any sort of immense national effort devoted to one specific end.

The concept seemingly attaches itself to any proposal that potentially involves hundreds of billions of dollars, tens of thousands of scientists and hundreds of thousands of other employees,working in dozens of massive institutions and plants.

Particularly when directed by a broad national consensus that the work needs to be done right and done now --- and hence done big.

Seemingly nothing could be further from this use of the term than Henry Dawson's little Manhattan project, running in the exact same years as the atomic project, in fact operating on the same campuses of the same NYC university.

Physically, Dawson's project consisted mostly of some Erlenmeyer flasks and five gallon carboys in a constantly changing oddball variety of temporary locations.

That, along with a few chemically-oriented containers and glass tubing in a tiny extract lab mostly located on an external fire-escape, together a handful of patients in a public charity ward.

WWII was such a big war that only a rare effort like the scale of the Manhattan Project or the size of the D-Day invasion fleet can hope to break through into our collective consciousness as something unusually big, in WWII terms.

Dawson's tiny (and un-government-supported project) could rarely have loomed smaller in this scale of things.

I doubt that Dawson cared - more accurately - he felt it was a huge project, albeit on a different scale : on the symbolic scale.

It wasn't in Dawson's nature to preach a parable, but rather to perform a parable : so he repeatedly performed the highly controversial and symbolic act of providing 'unclean' slime-made penicillin for 'unworthy' (unclean translated into newspeak) SBE patients.

If the 1940s global medical tribe had a Book of Leviticus, then Dawson deliberately set out to break every rule in that sacred book.

(In this secular age, it might be necessary for me to add that he wasn't the first to do something similar.)

The long biblical Book of Leviticus set out in great detail as to who could or could not dwell inside the 'gated community' of orthodox Judaism.

Rather like its opponents, the Nazis, Leviticus tended to turn the invisible concepts of evil and sin into visible biological and medical conditions.

Jesus wasn't a frequent medical practitioner --- he rejected most requests, choosing to focus instead on a handful of very controversial patients, while using an equally controversial method to affect their cure.

The few patients he chose to heal were all social and medical outcasts, generally because their diseases were viewed as unclean -- so these potential patients themselves were literally untouchable and hence hard to heal by conventional means of the day.

Jesus very publicly focused on these few unclean - and only these unclean - and cured them by, again by very publicly touching their untouchable bodies.

Jesus healed - physically - a mere handful, deliberately creating much public controversy, because the real intent was the spiritually and social healing of an entire nation and then the entirety of humanity.

Jesus sought, by his selective medical cures and in his rituals of open commensality meals, to make it clear that in his mind the Kingdom of God was not some exclusion-oriented 'gated community', open only to a the few Jews that fulfilled at the right visible rituals.

Instead it was an inclusive Big Tent open to all those in humanity who kept to God's basic tenets in their invisible heart and mind.

Penicillin a Parable , not a Miracle 

Henry Dawson grew up in a highly religious evangelical Presbyterian family and had probably heard a thousand Bible-based sermons by the time he left Canada (and the church) for America.

But if he left the church readily enough, half a lifetime of its values and sermons could hardly have left him.

But why speculate ?

I believe that any medical practitioner, even without ever hearing Jesus's medical parables, would still tend to duplicate his methods, if they wished to make as vivid a point as possible in exalting inclusion over exclusion.

Deliberately court public controversy and discussion by very visibly (and against much social resistance and disapproval) commit to treat the most socially disdained patients.

Further, add salt to the wounds by choosing to heal them by the most socially disdained methods available.

In other posts, I have explained just why Dawson choosing to suddenly focus on treating SBEs (a disease well outside his area of expertise) with his slime-made penicillin (a area of microbiology again well out of his expertise) was like throwing gasoline to a quiet fire, in the medical world of 1940.

Other writers, to their credit (basically because they see Dawson as a minor figure in their take on wartime penicillin), don't fake citations to back up their empty claims that he was always consumed with finding a cure for SBE.

I flatly say he wasn't --- and that there isn't any citations to disprove me.

The project was started by Dawson's close colleague chemist Karl Meyer as an effort to totally synthesize a little penicillin, at a 'first go around' level.

That meant success would be acclaimed even if only a minuscule amount of penicillin was produced and even if produced at an incredibly un-commercial /un-useful to patients yield level.

Altogether a highly typically academic (in every sense of the word) chemistry exercise, fully in the Bob Woodward alpha male mode.

No writer explains why this conventional academic chemistry exercise suddenly morphed in a few weeks into a clinically oriented mass production effort (mass producing mold inside a hospital !) involving biological penicillin.

if the whole effort wasn't meant to be a visible parable about inclusion over exclusion, than what was it meant to be....

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