Friday, October 8, 2010

Sir Robertson's curious letter and curiouser claim

Late August and early September 1942 saw a furious burst of letters to the editor directed at The Times of London, provoked by an August 27th editorial in paper concerning penicillin.

The three hundred word effort echoed an earlier editorial from The Lancet , and supported their claim that the drug was non toxic and more active than sulfa drugs and that its production should be greatly expanded and quickly.

Since penicillin looked to be a real comer with much 'moral capital' accruing to the companies or institutions that best claimed the laurels for first developing it, naturally all the major bodies involved had to elbow their way forward to stake their claim -  the current 'all-for-one' war effort not withstanding.

(A note to errant historians and authors: the drug companies' penicillin research arm, the TRC,were actually the first to gave themselves credit. Only then did St Mary's Hospital step in to also seek some glory.)

Sir Robert Robertson, the world famous Oxford chemist , spoke for the Oxford team.

Some of what he claimed were mere weasel words.

Dawson published the results of his treatment of 12 patients by May 1941, Florey his results on ten patients in August 1941.

Both were admirably cautious in assessing what if anything penicillin had done for their patients.

Dawson was actually the first to treat a patient and see that patient go home from his deathbed --- so Robertson was content to use weasel words that Florey was the first to "demonstrate the value
(of penicillin) clinically."

'Demonstrate' is a subjective term - in the eyes of the beholder - and Robertson knew it.

So, he had as well admitted that Fleming discovered penicillin and that Dawson had been the first to use it clinically as a life-saving systemic antibiotic.

What credit left for Oxford?

Robertson then told the bare-faced lie that toxic materials were produced by the penicillium mold, along with penicillin.

 Florey was therefore to be praised for being the first to separate the unsafe impurities from the safe pure penicillin so that it could be at last safely used on humans. (But wasn't, not by Florey - at least not right away ...!)

Nobody who ever worked with penicillin-producing penicillium , starting with Fleming in 1928 and carrying right on through twenty years later, ever saw enough of anything harmful, at levels enough to be toxic.

All made a point to note that the raw penicillin juice was not toxic even when injected in huge quantities by normal medical standards.

Foremost among these supporters of the use of  semi-purified or raw penicillin was one Howard Florey.

He publicly marveled that in hundreds of IM injections, no damage was ever seen at the site of the needle - not even in babies. The impure preparations he rated at 10% pure at the max (actually 3% pure) yet their impurities ( 97% of the dose) were non toxic - even when given in huge dosages.

It is hard to imagine a better test for proving the impurities were NOT toxic --- I can not,myself, imagine one.

What was going on then - in the mind of Professor Robertson and his chemist-manque Dr Florey ?

If Robertson and Florey had made any headway on synthesizing penicillin, I am sure this would have been their sole claim to glory.

But they hadn't.

So what can chemists do?

They can separate substances, even if they can't synthesize them, and even if the substances didn't need separating !

A nice meal does not improve when a chemist burns it all and then pours acid over the remains, to separate it into its constitute elements.

Penicillin juice - as Australian Dr James Vincent Duhig demonstrated in Brisbane in the Fall of 1943, doesn't need to be separated from its impurities at all, in order to save lives safely.

When it comes to questions of health, trust Duhig,MD over chemist Robertson PhD.

I don't expect Oxford University's academics to ever set the scholastic record straight about what Oxford did and didn't do with penicillin.

Claiming a leading role in developing the best lifesaver the world will ever know is simply too much of a money spinner for Oxford and the entire Thames Valley community.....

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