Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oswald Avery : unknown and famous for the wrong things...

It is the tragedy of Halifax Nova Scotia born Oswald Avery that he is famous for a study he didn't really believe in (and opposed for years) and he is unknown for his lifework, which today saves millions of childrens' lives around the world each year.

Oswald Avery is today known as 'The Father of Molecular Biology' , which should tip us off right from the start.

Scientists are never more manipulative and intellectually dishonest than when they are fabricating the history of the "Father" (never the "Mother" or "parents") of their particular branch of science.

Avery is no exception. In this case, we know this to be so, because the person who created the myth of Avery (Joshua Lederberg) said so: he intended to 'do a Mendel on Avery'.

Gregor Medel did wonderful pioneering work , but his credentials for being considered the father of any science are widely regarded today as spurious - and he would be the first to say so loudly if he came back today.

As would Avery regarding his alleged founding role in molecular biology - to his credit, he never claimed much for his work in this field while he was alive - and he lived for 10 years after his 'big' discovery.

But in the saving-the-lives-of-millions-of-innocent-baby-children world, the world of conjugate vaccines, Avery is a GIANT - or should be.

He certainly is to the researchers in that field.

But he is merely 'the key individual' in an effort that spanned a century and included every continent,thousands of researchers and hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is a story far too vast and far too complicated for popular science reporting to credit to any one medical super hero and one shining experimental result: no Pasteur or Jonas Salk here.

Instead Avery is praised for one 'seminal-paper-that-was-ignored-at-the-time' --- which rather implies an intellectual oxymoron and suggests the difficulty in crediting him as the Father of anything .

That paper was published in February 1944 but had its formal beginnings with experiments that began on October 22nd 1940 on Manhattan Island, that tiny island not far off the American coast.

Ah yes ! October 1940 : menses mirabilis indeed.

It is almost as if May 1940, certainly one of the most 'menses horribilis' in all of Western Civilization, (followed by the August to September 1940 aborted invasion of England : half horribilis half mirabilis), seemed to have drawn out extraordinary efforts from various North American scientists deeply emotionally affected by the events in Europe but too old to be called to actively take up a rifle.

Because one of the things those three extraordinary laboratory efforts in October 1940 have in common is their sheer physicality - scaled up to pilot plant size before table top work had even started; dirty, tiring, dangerous work.

Literally, not just figuratively, fighting for results in the trenches of science.

So, if in October 2010, we mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the financial recognition for (a) George Laurence's efforts to build an atomic pile, and (b) Henry Dawson's start in his efforts to cure SBE with natural penicillin injections, we might as well add (c) the formal start of Oswald Avery and Colin MacLeod's efforts to determine the chemical nature of Henry Dawson's Transforming Principle - proving it to be DNA.

Did we say 'North American scientists' ??

Let it stand.

We all know that we here at the Arcadian Recorder also mean 'Nova Scotian-born scientists', but let that remain our little secret.....

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