Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fleming - not Florey - spurs American penicillin mass production !

It has been fashionable lately to discount the excessive credit given to Sir Alexander Fleming for bringing us penicillin, particularly in the period between 1944 and 1972.

The counter tendency is now to try to give too much credit to Sir Howard Florey, Fleming's supposed rival for penicillin glory.

Actually, these supposed rivals worked closely quite closely together on British government penicillin committees between 1942 and 1946, sharing a common - if perverted - vision to keep wartime penicillin 'secret, scarce and synthetic'.

But nevertheless it is now general to credit Florey's snap decision to go to America in mid 1941 to try and secure a kilo (40 Mega units of low purity) penicillin from any or all American drug firms for his clinical research, as leading to these  same American firms mass producing abundant penicillin a scant (sic) three years later.

The truth is much the reverse, for Florey's trip actually put Allied penicillin efforts in the hands of the OSRD's Abominable No-Man : A.N. Richards, PhD.

If Florey had stayed home and simply let the Free Enterprise that his conservative/Conservative values supposedly espoused work, lots of firms in Britain and America would have produced abundant wartime penicillin as soon as frontline surgeons and doctors had convinced their rear echelon superiors to issue contracts for the same.

It is usually felt that an interview between a newly fired up Fleming (suddenly realizing that systemic penicillin could actually save lives after 14 years of denying the possibility) and his friend from the same small part of Scotland (who just happened to be the current Minister for the extremely powerful Ministry of Supply) that spurred the British government into taking action on penicillin.

This isn't totally true or false as the MOS had been active in a low key way for almost a year but Fleming's intervention did lead to a hastily called penicillin conference in late September 1942 that greatly upped penicillin in MOS and Army priorities.

This quickly came to be communicated, in a general way, even to the British army representatives in America.

As a very indirect result of Fleming's low key political intervention months earlier, by late December 1942 it suddenly became embarrassingly clear to the OSRD-CMR & NAS-COC that a major political crisis was about to explode all around them at any time.

For the British Army medical liaison officer for America, RAMC Colonel Frank S Gillespie, had been visiting the biggest American penicillin-producing firms and they told Richards that they were tired of making all their penicillin for free and giving it to the CMR to pass onto the COC.

Could they please sell some to others ?

(Others : the British !)

If the drug companies did sell their life-saving penicillin to the British Army for use in North Africa while not being allowed to do so for the American Army also taking heavy casualties there and the story got into Drew Pearson's Washington Merry Go Round, soon Congressmen would be getting lots of very irate letters.

From mothers of wounded American servicemen, languishing for months with untreatable chronic severe osteomeylitis, denied penicillin despite repeated pleas from frontline doctors, all because of the opposition of Army Surgeon General James Magee, CMR czar Newton Richards and COC boss Chester Keefer.

Magee, already a big disappointment to his Army superiors, hardly needed this new attack.

And the COC & CMR , lacking actual legislative authority to push doctors and firms around had relied on a general air of mystery about their actual powers, to do the same.

Sweating under the Krieg Lights at some Congressional hearing was going to change all that.

So Richards and Keefer began casting about for a way to appear to give penicillin to the American army, while actually retaining intellectual control (and the resulting funding and public acclaim kudos) over it.

Their chance came in March 1943, ironically from more bad news.

For one of Richard's most trusted younger colleagues, Frank B Queen, was so frustrated with the lack of CMR penicillin for his osteomyelitis cases in a Utah military hospital, he was even going off the medical reservation by growing and applying his own crude penicillin instead !

Instantly, these Beltway pros pivoted left, sending out one of Keefer's  most trusted  colleagues, Champ Lyons, to assist Queen with CMR penicillin - all designed to steal back all the credit to civilian investigators for work done in a stateside military hospital.

It was not until May 1943, the war more than half over, that penicillin finally reached the American front lines for the 1A troops.

Ironically, some Army cast off 4Fs back home had access to penicillin since October 1940.

During WWII, the Army had all the penicillin, you say ?

If only that was so ......

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