Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wartime penicillin originally to be made by Worthy Few....for the Worthy Few

At first glance, it seems that wartime penicillin, to the American and British elites, was always first and foremost a secret race to be the first nation to secure the highly profitable postwar/worldwide patented monopoly on the world's best synthetic antibiotic.

And that only secondarily was penicillin part of an Allied effort to defeat the Axis and succour the ill.

This isn't true - it isn't even the half of it - the story is very darker than that.

Natural penicillin - the only one we still make today - is PD (in the public domain) anyone anywhere can make it and it can not be monopolized by one nation and tied up in costly patent royalties.

The prospect of secret scarce synthetic penicillin attracted four groups within the Allied elite , for four widely varying reasons.

Most obvious were all the individual pharmaceutical firms , nominally united in various American and British cartels but secretly hoping to be the firm to win the highly profitable race to be the first synthesize and patent the lifesaver hitherto made by the pesky mold.

Those already inside the small penicillin cartels naturally favoured secrecy to keep down the number of potential competitors.

(Artificial) wartime scarcity would help make acceptable a high price for this potent lifesaver from among the wartime public - ensuring that almost as high prices in the postwar would also feel natural.

The British or American elites had no skins in this particular race - they simply wanted the lucky firm or cartel to be from their nation -  for they could already see the not to distant day when pharmaceutical firms were the world's biggest and most profitable multinational corporations.

Precious and unique life-saving pharmaceuticals were destined to be a big part of their foreign trade and diplomatic efforts abroad.

And because they feared the chemical prowess of the Germans and Swiss even more than they feared each other's synthetic skills, the two governments were united with the the pharmaceuticals in wanting the effort to synthesize penicillin kept as effectively un-popular as possible.

Information - boring information - about the wartime efforts to make penicillin were hardly secret - they were published in scientific journals read by very few, but obtainably even in Axis countries, albeit with some effort.

But what had not happened was that penicillin was not made popular to the world reading audience.

These readers were not interested in the minute details of penicillin culture media variants - but dramatic tales of a children snatched back from the jaws of death by this new miracle cure was another thing altogether.

Such newspaper reports had made the obscure sulfa drugs almost instantly world famous in the mid 1930s.

Even members of the elites (Axis and Neutral as well as Allied) have young children and grandchildren and can well imagine the same sad situation befalling them.

But unlike ordinary parents and grandparents, newspaper-reading elites moved by these stories can also make the wheels of government, commerce, the military and the media spin.

Popular stories, unlike mere public stories, can even move mountains., even in wartime.

This is why between August 1941 and August 1943, it was actually easier for Axis scientists to read about Allied progress towards resolving the chemistry of penicillin in Allied academic journals than it was for Allied citizens to read in their local newspaper about a local child rescued from an early grave by penicillin.

Fears the Germans would patent penicillin first were not really the Allied governments concern - they planned to take all Axis patents as intellectual reparation payments anyway, after the war.

But if the wartime Germans could use abundant cheap stable secret synthetic penicillin to get lightly wounded frontline troops back into battle in days not months, it would be like doubling the size of their armies.

Thus letting them win vital battles otherwise lost when D-Day finally arrived.

That won't do, because that was precisely the Allied plan (made by civilian research doctors at least as much as by generals) as well.

The plan was to violate the long standing Geneva Conventions on medicine in war, as the Allies (unlike the Axis !)  turned a life-saving medicine into a deadly weapon of war.

A weapon selectively killing by denying vital medical aid to the 'unworthy' dying.

The Allied plan was no wartime penicillin - if at all possible - for Allied POWs or Axis POWs,  for severely wounded Allied troops or for the Allied Home Front civilians. Not until after the war with Germany had been effectively won.

It then goes almost but not quite without saying, none for civilians in Occupied, Neutral and Enemy lands either.

So deciding between giving scarce penicillin to a dying soldier unlikely ever to see his family - let alone combat - again or to give it to a frontline soldier would had been unfaithful overseas and now was lightly 'wounded' with VD, the decision was always to let one die and cure the unfaithful one instead.

The frontline infantry - particularly in the American army , but true in all Allied armies, were the least physically and mentally fit - those leftover after all the other military branches had high graded off the best.

Infantry work was a dog's job and the infantry were in constant short supply, despite being at the vital pointy end of the military stick.

If too many infantry got sick and wounded, they would have to be replaced somehow - ultimately even by the sons of the elite hitherto sheltered from the war studying engineering stateside.

Thus it was a silent pact among almost everybody else that the current dogfaces - scum of the scum that they actually were - would get priority on penicillin so that they and not me or my son would face the Nazi MG 42 machine gun fire behind their sturdy 5 mm of cotton twill armour.

Ironies of ironies, when it came to penicillin, the infantry lowlifes were "The Worthy Few".

Finally we turn to the scientific and medical elites of the Allied world  because describing their reasons to support secret, scarce and synthetic penicillin is more unfamiliar and complex.

But, in the end, they too are fully representative of  mainstream globe-wide intellectual currents in this Age of Certitude.

The scientific-medical research elite, as naive as their doting public, innocently believed it was easy to determine the one correct answer to any question posed, if only (in both senses of that word) the right experts were involved.

So it seemed obvious to them and their middle class fans, in a way not so obvious us today, that the simply the best people to determine whether penicillin could indeed stop gas gangrene and staph infections in deep dirty frontline wounds caused by high explosive shellfire was to have civilian specialists study staph infections in the pristine conditions of the world's top civilian research hospitals.

Even worse, deadly gas gangrene caused by high energy shell fragments forcing cattle-infected dirt deep into war wounds, the leading killer of WWI and something only penicillin could stop, was rarely encountered in such big city civilian hospitals.

Much better a mobile growing penicillin lab just behind the frontline in North Africa, treating entirely typical combat wounds, dirty,pus-filled and overrun by staph and gas gangrene germs.

If penicillin worked there, it'd work anywhere on the frontlines worldwide - the reverse could not be said about transferring the conclusions from studying cases treated under pristine civilian hospital conditions to the dirty frontlines.

But handing a (potentially Nobel-winning) major scientific to bone-headed military sawbones just grated the nerves of the civilian scientific elite ---- we are the brightest and the smartest - not them.

Instead they favoured the supposedly co-operative clinical trials of a potential new drug like  penicillin.

Co-cooperativeness had never actually worked - even experts quarrelled endlessly among themselves, quite rightly, about various ends and means deemed worthy of top attention.

Only by directly controlling the supply of a scarce complicated to make drug, had the medical-scientific elites been able to erect a coercive clinical study for that drug - march to our tune, or don't march at all.

They called this science but actually it was the very definition of 'Politics' from basic Pol Sci 101 : 'the authoritative allocation of scarce resources'.

Add in big does of wartime secrecy and censorship, control of the money tree, appeals to patriotism, and the penicillin elite thought they had it all sewn up.

But penicillin is actually as free willed as mold spores blowing in the wind and it proved far easier to make and use clinically successful than the big drug companies and the scientific mucky mucks always claimed.

(Claimed to keep outsiders off their turf).

Led by Dr Dawson and his band of outliers, their intellectual firewalls were eventually totally breeched.

So far, I have tried to reveal the plan to see wartime penicillin made only by the Worthy Few (a few blessed pharma firms and their scientific-medical masters) for the Worthy Few (frontline troops).

But let's, finally, draw way way back to see the really big picture.

The stinky, slimy, foul molds were the lowest of the low among the low lifeforms in the Age of Certitude.

If the Moderns were united in seeing that upper middle class middle aged scientifically trained Protestant males of European origin were at the top of the Great Ladder of Life, the Era also agreed that at the very bottom were beings like the molds.

In between the top and bottom, lower forms of life filled places like Africa and Asia and Harlem and Chinatown.

If tiny mold chemists bested the smartest human chemists in the universe in making this wonderful lifesaver, it threatened the entire side - white s would begin to lose face all over what we now call the Third and Fourth world.

Every single time that newspaper reporters reported this lifesaver was made by the 'common' 'kitchen' mold , scientific teeth grated all over the world.

Common as in working class, kitchen as in women and servants' domain.

This, I believe, best explains the obsession with keeping penicillin secret, even during a total war, until Man could successful announce he had bested Mother Nature in making this lifesaving boon to humanity.

Think I kid ?

Note well the wholesale shift from news media photos of primitive penicillin growing in dank basements by young working class women in dirty shifts to high tech penicillin made in massive tanks -  in gleaming new white factories - by middle class middle aged men in white coats gravely turning knobs....

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