Tuesday, January 26, 2016

WWII penicillin : independent or institutional ?

On May 20th 1944, Dr Gladys Hobby writes to OSRD medical chief Dr A.N. Richards (wartime penicillin's real Penicillin Tsar), in effect to protest the largely successful efforts by his fellow institutionally oriented medical elite to use the excuse of wartime necessity to crush all remaining independent medical efforts.

In the early 1940s, it was still not unusual, as Dr Ronald Hare recounts in his book "The Birth of Penicillin", for ordinary doctors to prepare and purify a drug with their own hands, personally test on some of their own patients (all that is entailed when we say drugs are 'compounded') and then to personally dispense the medicine directly to any willing customers.

A different, lost, age.

Yes, individual doctors in direct competition with the pharmaceutical firms, albeit drug firms that were invariably set up not that long before, by ordinary doctors just like themselves.

Hobby explains/complains that she and her co-worker Dr Henry Dawson are particularly anxious that their paper on 'the cultural factors influencing the production of (hospital-lab-made crude) penicillin' be allowed to be published.

This because such publication was the only way 'independent laboratories' (her words) such as that of Dawson & Hobby, individuals not contractually ensnared inside the net of secret government contracts controlled by Richards, can make their findings known to all groups working on hastening wartime penicillin production to save the dying.

In particular, make their findings known to other independent penicillin teams who are all denied access to the taxpayer funded research controlled by Richards.

1940s penicillin's intercine war

Hobby & Dawson's thinking on encouraging individual independent efforts was precisely what Richards and others in the wartime medical elite were most intent on destroying (and after them, the Nazis perhaps).

So, in a sense, Hobby already had answered the question she raised in this letter : why was their paper censored while others so similar in content where easily published ?

It wasn't a question of their content, per say, but of their intentions : work within the grid of institutional protocols and get published, work freelance and be repressed.

Penicillin's biggest successes were all independent outliers - go on, say it, even if saying so destroys your tenure prospects at the biggest institutions

The big, big problem - which academic historians haven't yet been willing to confront in their hagiographies to the institutional-oriented elites inside the MRC, COC &CMR - is that all the biggest successes for wartime penicillin came from independently-minded individuals, not from the massive institutional group efforts.

These outlier successes were unfunded by the institutional elites,tested new treatment proposals rejected by their institutional protocols and were fuelled by unapproved home-brew crude penicillin rather than by institutionally controlled commercial penicillin.

Let us rehearse them one more time for the slow learners : Queen at Bushnell using home-brew crude to successfully test upon military cases of severe chronic osteomyelitis ; Mahoney on Staten Island using home-brew crude to prove penicillin could cure syphilis ; Dawson at Columbia-Presbyterian curing the hitherto invariably fatal SBE with his home-brew crude.

The problem was that everyone in the institutional-oriented elite were extremely highly competent plodders : middle-aged men who had all come to realize they were better as administrators than as individual researchers ; finally and sadly recognizing that they lacked the courage and the flashes of genius required to pursue long shots to their paradigm-shaking, Nobel-winning conclusions.

Their only chance at eternal fame as scientists were to be the titular heads of massive, highly conventional, group efforts using brute-force science.

They feared individual unbridled unfettered genius far more than they feared Hitler.

Yes, penicillin was very much involved in a fierce war during the early 1940s, but Mr H, Mussolini and Tojo played no part in it.

For much of that war, the main objective of the penicillin cum institutionalized medical elite was to keep this potentially Nobel prize winning new drug as far away from the Allied military as possible ---- away from the military doctors and also away from independently minded doctors and pharmaceutical firms.

Until the fact of this hidden intercine war is openly admitted no account of wartime penicillin will be true to the primary sources, only true to the postwar self justifications by penicillin's guilty losing elites....

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