Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mo going Po : Bing - Otis : Trying Tenderness

Can you actually hear the sound of modernity and postmodernity ?

I think you can, probably Rob Bowman thinks you can too.

To demonstrate, let me first direct you to YouTube where you can find about three dozen different versions of "Try a Little Tenderness".

The ones I want you to particularly hear are by Bing Crosby, the one  done in the mid-Thirties, and the ones Otis Redding  did live, before his tragic death in late 1967.

The song was written by two successful British songwriters in the early 1930s.

The first hit version, by Ted Lewis's band, is the most melodious of all of them - as long as the slightly creepy, jokey, cold male singer isn't about.

Male is probably the operative word here : he basically says that women's only happiness is love (not success) and love needn't cost a man much and you'll soon have her once again eating out of your hands, doing the dishes and the wash, tending your babies etc.

Another early version is by chanteuse Ruth Etting, and being a woman who can feel herself into the situation of the down on her luck Depression Era female subject of the song, she does a very soulful version, particularly for that early in the era of modernity.

All the big male singers of the era seemed to have done the song.


One of the best known was by Bing, singing in his sleep and phoning it in from the golf course : it comes across as that smooth, pure, perfect, uncommitted, distant.

And he sang it same ever after : for how can you top perfection ?

The Age of Certitude knew everything, never made a mistake, never sweated, reflected or agonized - its favourite type of singer (Bing) reflected all those modernist virtues to a t (or tee).


Otis, by contrast, always sweated, always was hoarse, ragged, emotionally committed --- and never sang any song the same way two times through.

Otis personified the spirit of post-modernity.

And us post-modernists, though he and we didn't know it yet, loved him for it.

But granddad's Der Bing ?

We didn't quite get it ....

Monday, February 8, 2016

LaPlace's modern A-Bomb -- Goldman's postmodern Penicillin

Vannevar Bush's famous wartime 'modern science' agency, the OSRD, was heavily involved in trying to control two Manhattan Projects - the well known one involving a highly successful effort to create The Bomb and the unknown one involving an unsuccessful effort to make synthetic penicillin.

Modern science's chief philosopher was Pierre-Simon Laplace,  forever seeking a spot high above the Universe to successfully predict and control everything about everything --- now, in the past and in the future.

He'd have loved the way Bush's team had controlled The Bomb, keeping it both secret and in America's hands.

(Provided Laplace could ignore the unpleasant fact that no one can predict when any particular atom is about to go radioactive, something he didn't know when he proposed a potentially fully knowable Universe.)

By contrast, Postmodern science's chief philosopher might as well be Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, the guy who basically told us that nobody knows anything about anything.

Goldman won't have found the unlikely come-from-behind tale of wartime natural penicillin's triumph over synthetic penicillin at all too unbelievable, even for Hollywood .

In a postmodern age, it all seemed perfectly plausible.....

Big Penicillin : Big Lie ?

If you've read one account as to how the Allied world moved to the mass production of natural penicillin in the early Spring of '43, you've read 'em all.

It goes roughly like this :
Alfred Richards of the OSRD-CMR , together with Chester Keefer of the NAS-COC, having together briskly proven the clinical efficacy of the new medication, now 'asked' the WPB to just as briskly move the drug into high production. They wanted the War Production Board to increase monthly output by an incredible 100,000% in a year's time, so that the Armed Forces' desperate needs could be met. Working hard together, (here cue 'hands across the water') the sweat, labour and ingenuity of American companies, scientists and workers soon achieved the impossible. (Here insert wild applause.)

In fact, left to their own devices and un-prodded by outside forces, these two scientists, together with their rubber stamp committees, would have polished the penicillin apple forever in civilian research settings far from the battlefront wounded  --- until Merck redeemed the honour of Man The Chemist and unleashed a patented, synthetic, version upon the world.

Casablanca - the conference not the movie - was fundamental

What changed most fundamentally in January 1943 was the US Army's reluctant acceptance, after the Casablanca Conference with the British, that their eagerly sought invasion of Hitler's Europe would be postponed to early summer 1944.

There were two military medicine consequences flowing from that realization.

One was military medicine finally admitting the repressed evidence of the many failings of the sulfa drugs, the world's miracle drugs between 1936 and 1942.

In September 1942, some chemists had proven that all the antibacterial possibilities (positions) of the basic sulfa molecule had already been obtained. And germs were rapidly becoming very resistant to the existing sulfas.

One solution was to up the dosage but this merely increased the long known toxic dangers of these drugs. In any case, the sulfas had never worked against many important military germs and were often worse than useless in open combat wounds - harmful even.

Yet the Army's pre-Casablanca invasion protocol was in training all its medical staff - from top surgeons in the big rear echelon hospitals down to green front line medics - to liberally pour sulfa powder into open wounds as soon as they occurred.

The mass production of cheap abundant, stable powdered sulfa made that possible.

Allowing a few enterprising medical officers to bring the superior, but injection only, penicillin to the battle-lines on an experimental basis would only cloud this protocol.

But now a delay of a year and a half would allow the Army to experiment safely with all the possibilities of this new penicillin before the Big Push.

Secondly, with no D-Day on the near horizon, General Marshall could finally safely fire his current Army Surgeon General James Magee, for reasons unconnected with the penicillin versus sulfa debate.

But Magee was the sturdiest bulwark of the Richards-Keefer rubber stamp team on the notion of going glacially slow on wartime penicillin and not letting it anywhere near the frontline wounded.

A new Army Surgeon General might not prove as putty-like on the issue.

Army officers going off the Magee reservation on penicillin

Worse, it was no longer just a few pioneering American medical officers  demanding a bit of free frontline penicillin from the CMR and COC.

For now the British Army (in the person of liason officer Colonel Frank S Gillespie) was investigating paying  handsomely for massive amounts of American made penicillin from Richards' 'worthy few' penicillin firms (Merck & Squibb).

This pair, together with Pfizer to a lesser extent, had given all the tiny amounts of clinical penicillin they had produced in 1941 and 1942 free to the CMR-COC.

They now wanted to be able to sell lots of the stuff to the British and start making some returns for their investors.

Some in the US Army had so given up on both Magee and Richards/Keefer that they were actually home-brewing their own crude penicillin to help save those Army wounded dying from chronic severe deep bone infections.

Painfully, one of them was a young protege of Richards from way back in the day when Richards did research rather than just push paper.

Army by-passing Dr No

The published accounts always claim that it was the OSRD itself suddenly taking the lead on the move to mass produce natural penicillin, done by tearing open the OSRD's own 'worthy few' cartel and letting every manufacturer and every scientist in to try and make the stuff.

They date this request from the OSRD to the WPB to open up the process to late May or early June 1943.

Given that Dr Richards had rejected almost every such offer of manufacturing and scientific help, from all over North America, between 1941 and 1942 and his continuing preference to restrict the number of firms and scientists working on the secret synthetic manufacture of penicillin, it simply doesn't ring true.

Nothing in the published accounts actually contradicted this version but even in this 'official' OSRD version both the Army and the WPB sure seemed well up to speed on penicillin very quickly on what was then a very publicly unknown substance.

In fact, very early in 1943, the Army, at a level below General Magee, decided it needed penicillin, to supplement the failing fading sulfa before the big fight on D-Day.

And because they normally thought in terms of billion dollar programs and even a world awash in penicillin would cost less than another navy cruiser, they wanted it fast.

After all, they reasoned, greatly expanding its production would still hardly put a new strain on 1943's currently scarce resources.

These middle level military bureaucrats quickly figured out that the main roadblock to obtaining that result lay with Richards in Washington (and to a much less extent, Keefer in Boston).

They worked around him and presented him with a bureaucratically fait  accompli.

Cutter letter tells all

Recently, while researching in the records of the WPB and OSRD in US National Archives II in College Park Maryland, I cam across a PS at the bottom of a letter, indicating that a few weeks before May 12th 1943, a Cutter Laboratories rep and WPB penicillin chief John McManus had already visited Dr Richards at OSRD headquarters in Washington DC.

The Cutter rep was almost certainly Ted Cutter himself, judging by his oral history recollections.

This is truly amazing ---- Cutter had never produced a human drug before, let alone mass produce a very labile drug by a difficult fermentation process.

And it was relatively small in size and located in very remote (in the current world of penicillin research and production at least) Berkeley California.

But it had successfully made some very clever indeed veterinarian vaccines for half a century and was heavily involved in supplying the Army with vital lifesaving blood 'fractions'.

Both of these processes required the utmost attention to detail and the Army medical purchasing staff were powerfully impressed.

The Army had had a look at Richards' 'worthy few' and very unimpressed.

They figured that Cutter, even totally new to the game, could do as good - or better - a job as the veterans of three or four years effort.

The Army dragged Cutter into it and even offered to supply, basically free, a new factory for Cutter to run and even to re-tool it for free if synthetic penicillin ever arrived.

Above all, they promised they would deliver the same priority-busting efforts to get scarce new equipment as they had already done for Cutter to fractionate blood.

Cutter knew the Army had indeed gone the extra mile or five for them over blood equipment and trusted them to do the same with penicillin.

Cutter, together with the near by Shell Oil research facility (!) ended up doing globally important research in penicillin and, as well, provided its share to the mass production of natural penicillin.

I seriously doubt, from Ted Cutter's oral recollections, that Cutter was one of the many penicillin stones that supposed penicillin builder Richards had earlier rejected.

But if Cutter had sought to get in on penicillin by approaching Richards, it would have been turned down flat.

Green newcomer Cutter provided more than its share towards the precious natural penicillin ready, literally,'just in the nick of time' for the Allied troops on D-Day.

Richards' fair-haired boys at Merck, penicillin veterans for almost five years by then, shamefully did not.

That alone speaks volume on where the true credit for just-in-time D-Day penicillin lies...

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wartime penicillin originally to be made by Worthy Few....for the Worthy Few

At first glance, it seems that wartime penicillin, to the American and British elites, was always first and foremost a secret race to be the first nation to secure the highly profitable postwar/worldwide patented monopoly on the world's best synthetic antibiotic.

And that only secondarily was penicillin part of an Allied effort to defeat the Axis and succour the ill.

This isn't true - it isn't even the half of it - the story is very darker than that.

Natural penicillin - the only one we still make today - is PD (in the public domain) anyone anywhere can make it and it can not be monopolized by one nation and tied up in costly patent royalties.

The prospect of secret scarce synthetic penicillin attracted four groups within the Allied elite , for four widely varying reasons.

Most obvious were all the individual pharmaceutical firms , nominally united in various American and British cartels but secretly hoping to be the firm to win the highly profitable race to be the first synthesize and patent the lifesaver hitherto made by the pesky mold.

Those already inside the small penicillin cartels naturally favoured secrecy to keep down the number of potential competitors.

(Artificial) wartime scarcity would help make acceptable a high price for this potent lifesaver from among the wartime public - ensuring that almost as high prices in the postwar would also feel natural.

The British or American elites had no skins in this particular race - they simply wanted the lucky firm or cartel to be from their nation -  for they could already see the not to distant day when pharmaceutical firms were the world's biggest and most profitable multinational corporations.

Precious and unique life-saving pharmaceuticals were destined to be a big part of their foreign trade and diplomatic efforts abroad.

And because they feared the chemical prowess of the Germans and Swiss even more than they feared each other's synthetic skills, the two governments were united with the the pharmaceuticals in wanting the effort to synthesize penicillin kept as effectively un-popular as possible.

Information - boring information - about the wartime efforts to make penicillin were hardly secret - they were published in scientific journals read by very few, but obtainably even in Axis countries, albeit with some effort.

But what had not happened was that penicillin was not made popular to the world reading audience.

These readers were not interested in the minute details of penicillin culture media variants - but dramatic tales of a children snatched back from the jaws of death by this new miracle cure was another thing altogether.

Such newspaper reports had made the obscure sulfa drugs almost instantly world famous in the mid 1930s.

Even members of the elites (Axis and Neutral as well as Allied) have young children and grandchildren and can well imagine the same sad situation befalling them.

But unlike ordinary parents and grandparents, newspaper-reading elites moved by these stories can also make the wheels of government, commerce, the military and the media spin.

Popular stories, unlike mere public stories, can even move mountains., even in wartime.

This is why between August 1941 and August 1943, it was actually easier for Axis scientists to read about Allied progress towards resolving the chemistry of penicillin in Allied academic journals than it was for Allied citizens to read in their local newspaper about a local child rescued from an early grave by penicillin.

Fears the Germans would patent penicillin first were not really the Allied governments concern - they planned to take all Axis patents as intellectual reparation payments anyway, after the war.

But if the wartime Germans could use abundant cheap stable secret synthetic penicillin to get lightly wounded frontline troops back into battle in days not months, it would be like doubling the size of their armies.

Thus letting them win vital battles otherwise lost when D-Day finally arrived.

That won't do, because that was precisely the Allied plan (made by civilian research doctors at least as much as by generals) as well.

The plan was to violate the long standing Geneva Conventions on medicine in war, as the Allies (unlike the Axis !)  turned a life-saving medicine into a deadly weapon of war.

A weapon selectively killing by denying vital medical aid to the 'unworthy' dying.

The Allied plan was no wartime penicillin - if at all possible - for Allied POWs or Axis POWs,  for severely wounded Allied troops or for the Allied Home Front civilians. Not until after the war with Germany had been effectively won.

It then goes almost but not quite without saying, none for civilians in Occupied, Neutral and Enemy lands either.

So deciding between giving scarce penicillin to a dying soldier unlikely ever to see his family - let alone combat - again or to give it to a frontline soldier would had been unfaithful overseas and now was lightly 'wounded' with VD, the decision was always to let one die and cure the unfaithful one instead.

The frontline infantry - particularly in the American army , but true in all Allied armies, were the least physically and mentally fit - those leftover after all the other military branches had high graded off the best.

Infantry work was a dog's job and the infantry were in constant short supply, despite being at the vital pointy end of the military stick.

If too many infantry got sick and wounded, they would have to be replaced somehow - ultimately even by the sons of the elite hitherto sheltered from the war studying engineering stateside.

Thus it was a silent pact among almost everybody else that the current dogfaces - scum of the scum that they actually were - would get priority on penicillin so that they and not me or my son would face the Nazi MG 42 machine gun fire behind their sturdy 5 mm of cotton twill armour.

Ironies of ironies, when it came to penicillin, the infantry lowlifes were "The Worthy Few".

Finally we turn to the scientific and medical elites of the Allied world  because describing their reasons to support secret, scarce and synthetic penicillin is more unfamiliar and complex.

But, in the end, they too are fully representative of  mainstream globe-wide intellectual currents in this Age of Certitude.

The scientific-medical research elite, as naive as their doting public, innocently believed it was easy to determine the one correct answer to any question posed, if only (in both senses of that word) the right experts were involved.

So it seemed obvious to them and their middle class fans, in a way not so obvious us today, that the simply the best people to determine whether penicillin could indeed stop gas gangrene and staph infections in deep dirty frontline wounds caused by high explosive shellfire was to have civilian specialists study staph infections in the pristine conditions of the world's top civilian research hospitals.

Even worse, deadly gas gangrene caused by high energy shell fragments forcing cattle-infected dirt deep into war wounds, the leading killer of WWI and something only penicillin could stop, was rarely encountered in such big city civilian hospitals.

Much better a mobile growing penicillin lab just behind the frontline in North Africa, treating entirely typical combat wounds, dirty,pus-filled and overrun by staph and gas gangrene germs.

If penicillin worked there, it'd work anywhere on the frontlines worldwide - the reverse could not be said about transferring the conclusions from studying cases treated under pristine civilian hospital conditions to the dirty frontlines.

But handing a (potentially Nobel-winning) major scientific to bone-headed military sawbones just grated the nerves of the civilian scientific elite ---- we are the brightest and the smartest - not them.

Instead they favoured the supposedly co-operative clinical trials of a potential new drug like  penicillin.

Co-cooperativeness had never actually worked - even experts quarrelled endlessly among themselves, quite rightly, about various ends and means deemed worthy of top attention.

Only by directly controlling the supply of a scarce complicated to make drug, had the medical-scientific elites been able to erect a coercive clinical study for that drug - march to our tune, or don't march at all.

They called this science but actually it was the very definition of 'Politics' from basic Pol Sci 101 : 'the authoritative allocation of scarce resources'.

Add in big does of wartime secrecy and censorship, control of the money tree, appeals to patriotism, and the penicillin elite thought they had it all sewn up.

But penicillin is actually as free willed as mold spores blowing in the wind and it proved far easier to make and use clinically successful than the big drug companies and the scientific mucky mucks always claimed.

(Claimed to keep outsiders off their turf).

Led by Dr Dawson and his band of outliers, their intellectual firewalls were eventually totally breeched.

So far, I have tried to reveal the plan to see wartime penicillin made only by the Worthy Few (a few blessed pharma firms and their scientific-medical masters) for the Worthy Few (frontline troops).

But let's, finally, draw way way back to see the really big picture.

The stinky, slimy, foul molds were the lowest of the low among the low lifeforms in the Age of Certitude.

If the Moderns were united in seeing that upper middle class middle aged scientifically trained Protestant males of European origin were at the top of the Great Ladder of Life, the Era also agreed that at the very bottom were beings like the molds.

In between the top and bottom, lower forms of life filled places like Africa and Asia and Harlem and Chinatown.

If tiny mold chemists bested the smartest human chemists in the universe in making this wonderful lifesaver, it threatened the entire side - white s would begin to lose face all over what we now call the Third and Fourth world.

Every single time that newspaper reporters reported this lifesaver was made by the 'common' 'kitchen' mold , scientific teeth grated all over the world.

Common as in working class, kitchen as in women and servants' domain.

This, I believe, best explains the obsession with keeping penicillin secret, even during a total war, until Man could successful announce he had bested Mother Nature in making this lifesaving boon to humanity.

Think I kid ?

Note well the wholesale shift from news media photos of primitive penicillin growing in dank basements by young working class women in dirty shifts to high tech penicillin made in massive tanks -  in gleaming new white factories - by middle class middle aged men in white coats gravely turning knobs....

Monday, February 1, 2016

Why no numbers on British penicillin targets 1942-1944 ?

One hardly had to wait for academic articles, buried in obscure journals and published 7o years later, to find out the actual projected targets - in billions of units of penicillin by month, month by month, bandied about for the amount of penicillin American hoped to produce in 1943-1944.

The CMR and COC, along with various branches of the WPB (War Production Board) and of the Army, all had their say - often in the front pages of the popular newspapers of the day.

But seventy five years on, we still can't read any popular or academic article detailing the expected penicillin targets that the General Penicillin Committee of Britain's MOS (Ministry of Supply, the Uk's WPB equivalent) set in the months and years between the Fall of 1942 and late into 1945.

I am not surprised that British academics and journalists agreed amongst themselves to bury the lead on this highly embarrassing story in an unmarked grave - but American authors have been no better.

I expect to make a trip to the UK's penicillin archives  later this year - I hope I can find - and then quickly publish - some hard figures.

For now, this evasive non-answer to a MP's direct question for actual penicillin target figures (from MOS head, Sir Andrew Duncan, MP for the City of London and thus representing the financial elements of Britain) in the House of Commons Hansard for December 20th 1944, is typical :

Yes, Sir. Many British manufacturers are now making penicillin or are making arrangements to do so and any firm licensed for this purpose under the terms of the Therapeutic Substances Act will be given every encouragement to manufacture. It would be premature to give estimates of our production of penicillin in a year's time but it will be substantial, though less than American production, and it will not only meet military needs but provide large quantities for civilian purposes.

(I have rendered the time-honoured weasel words in italics.)

 In fact, while the British discovered the golden stuff, they were  soon reduced to begging the Americans for more of it via Lend-lease.

Sir Duncan was Alexander Fleming's friend and Duncan's penicillin committee included Fleming and all the other leading lights of British penicillin so there is - to adapt Michael Bliss - blame enough for all.

And Labour's Clem Atlee was at least as negligent as the Conservatives' Sir Duncan in the UK's wartime penicillin production fiasco.....

Fermenting Hope, in a world feeling hopeless : Dr Dawson

Paradoxically, while passionately worried about our current global crisis, I chose instead to write about a global crisis from 75 years ago.

 Because Dr Dawson faced a situation in WWII not unlike today's and his solution is equally valid - still.

 Just as today, the world's warring elites were nevertheless united (taking their cues from modernity science) in believing that Reality was both easily knowable and controllable.

 So if one already has all the answers, why seek the help of others?

 Back then, the elite held no special animus for Moslems (Jews topped that poll) but there were few of us they didn't potentially judge as unworthy of attention, of respect, even of life.

 These values of Modernity and Exclusion culminated, as we all know, in 1945 at Auschwitz.

 But 1945 is also regarded as the birthdate of Postmodernity and of our (too) slow move to more inclusionary values.

 And I dare to argue that it was Dawson's Big Tent Penicillin vision of "Help from all : Hope for all" that was its quiet harbinger..

Penicillin, despite the Beltway

With apologies to Arthur Hailey and the actor later to play Scottie on Star Trek...

At first and second glance, a Canadian North Star passenger plane landing safely isn't very much of a news story.

Not unless you can reveal that there actually was a life or death situation in the cockpit for the last half hour of the flight and only an unsung hero saved the day, when most of the passengers and all the flight crew became deathly ill from eating a shared bad seafood dinner.

Similarly, the 'happy ending' nature of WWII's just-in-time mass produced penicillin is over seventy years old, is universally known and is very much taken for granted.

 So I really have my work cut out for me to prove that it almost didn't happen, but for the heroic work of an unsung few overcoming resistance from the very powerful wartime 'Beltways' of Washington and London...