Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Mystery of Penicillin's 18 missing years

I believe that all of the penicillin books up to now - and there have been hundreds of them - have basically been a series of 100,000 word excuses - "the dog ate my penicillin homework".

Excuses to us - the lay public - on behalf of Science in general or on behalf of one or other early penicillin researchers in particular.

But eighty years later, we lay people still want to know why it was that the best life saving medicine this world will ever see took an eighteen year vacation (from September 1928 till about September 1946) before local doctors around the world could routinely prescribe it to save a life.

Whether they are from the pen of a medical historian  seeking to defend all of Science/a particular team effort or the effort of a lay author defending an individual scientist they particularly admire, all those apologies basically come down to this:
The 18 year delay was due to technical difficulties, not moral failings - at least not the moral failings of my hero.
My book, by contrast, is not going to be a technical book - at least in its intentions.

(It will actually highly technical and highly accurate at times---- but only when needed to refute technical excuses and bromides.)


Mine will be a Moral History of penicillin - it will lay out a thesis that it was moral failings, not technical difficulties, that delayed penicillin becoming popularly know and commonly prescribed during all those years of death and suffering that we now call The Great Depression and World War Two.

The two events caused an excess of 100 million premature deaths over what might have been expected in that 16 year period.

Even if we content to 'merely' reduce those excessive deaths and not seek to prevent many of the so-called normal infectious deaths, how millions might penicillin have saved if it was readily available by 1929-1930?

Or consider this: despite the new global threat from nuclear weapons, the Cold War period from 1945 till 1985 was actually an incredibly optimist period in world human history.

The promise of 1945's penicillin was sufficient, all by itself, to overcome the fear induced by 1945's A-Bomb.

For a generation, penicillin kept most of us buoyed up about ourselves and the world around us.

Could those good vibes - induced in 1928-1929 instead of twenty years later - have been enough, by themselves, to prevent the worst of the Great Depression and World War Two from even happening ?

We will never know.

 But I believe these questions are still big enough,eighty years on, for it to be worthwhile to re-examine the early penicillin saga to see if there is another explanation for the delay. One that will finally convince most lay people - and hopefully - even convince a few of the scientists.


In the Fall of 1943, in Brisbane Australia, 15 years after Fleming discovered penicillin, Dr J V Duhig saved the lives of a dozen seriously ill people using a form of penicillin juice no more sophisticated than what Fleming had on hand in November 1928.

This the single hard, hard, hard, hard ,hard, historical stone against which I am going to grind every author and every account that claims that there were 'technical complications' why the world had to wait 15 or more years to put the life-saving effects of penicillin to work.

Until and unless they can explain to everyone's satisfaction why Duhig could do this - but why Fleming/Florey and Dawson et all couldn't - I will not relent.....

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