Thursday, August 19, 2010


During World War II, from July 1944 till 1946, the Canadian Army in Europe produced an ordinary-soldier-oriented newspaper called The Maple Leaf.

Sort of a pale version of the American Stars and Stripes.

Its June 29th 1945 edition has an interesting story datelined Vancouver and entitled "PENICILLIN GROWN IN ITALY'S FIELDS".

Newly demobbed Private Donald MacRae, working in a BC logging camp as the first aid medic, is now free to tell an interesting operatic science tale that the highly dignified medical scientists had kept under cover till then.

It was March 1944 before penicillin was flowing freely through conventional channels to the Canadian military in Italy.

(Thank you Pfizer !)

Till then, the Canadian doctors in some hospitals grew unofficial penicillin from spores sent to them from Cairo - ie from Robert Pulvertaft - one of my heroes in the whole penicillin saga.

Nice to know a few lives were saved or helped by this effort.

The instructions certainly sound like Pulvertaft's style - cut a lot of unpeeled potatoes in two, throw in a bucket of warm water with the top exposed to airborne microbes, leave out and about.

Twenty four hours later, put the potatoes in a stew and enjoy.

But the water they soaked in, with the addition of a few mineral salts, was now just about perfect to grow a good brew of yellow penicillin juice in about 6 days, if kept in a cool dank basement.

Call it the poor man's corn steep liquor --- !!!!

(If keeping the potatoes from spoiling before reaching Italy was a priority, we can assume these potatoes might have come from Prince Edward Island via a Halifax convoy.)

A chemist could grow old and die before they figured out why the mold preferred this rather foul smelling mess rather than their pure and expensive 'defined mediums' with added amino acids.

But an ecologist- or a housewife - could explain it in an instant.

Basically the potatoes were being deliberately put on the road to spoiling and rotting for 24 hours before being cooked and eaten.

For millions of years the fungi had adopted themselves to eating half rotted food - not simple amino acids nor complex proteins either - but rather half digested proteins etc.

Sloppy Seconds, as it were.

Andy Moyer knew what he was about when he told all visiting British researchers that they needn't think the NRRL's farm surplus corn steep liquor was the only thing that would make penicillium grow penicillin - almost any complex dirty -and dirt cheap- farm cast off might work.

"Go look about at what the British breweries throw out, " he said.

POWs and civilian prisoners have always known that potatoes make great contraband brew - now we see it saves lives too !

#3 in an occasional series of articles about morally resolute individuals and food and unofficial penicillin uniting to save lives when the medical establishment, governments and drug companies fell flat.

(#1 Duhig,unofficial penicillin and Vegamite saves lives in Brisbane.)

(#2 Dawson, unofficial penicillin and Jack Frost brown sugar save lives in New York.)

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