Monday, July 25, 2016

Dawson's Unwashed Penicillin for the Great Unwashed or Florey's Pure Penicillin for the Pure & Fit ?

Wars, externally, may involve the clash of guns, but inside, they're really about the clash of ideas

You may think that the seventy five year old conflict over how best to make and distribute wartime penicillin was simply not capable of being freighted with the key clash of ideas and values behind WWII, but I am here trying to convince you that it was.

Let's start with Truth Time : for all the highly technical industrial processes of 'purifying' of sophisticated antibiotics such as the penicillins, (whether they are made by microbes or by man) when you actually get down to it, they're pretty much downhome and domestic, basically consisting of a long series of repeated 'washings' by various liquid solvents.

And in point of fact, in the very early days of penicillin production, each washing by these strong chemicals tended to remove only a little of the relatively harmless impurities and a great deal of the scarce (and very fragile-seeming) penicillin intended for the dying patient

To be actually able to save lives (now !) rather than merely compete in the Alpha Dog contest to be the first to reach the Mount Everest of 100% pure penicillin, Dr Dawson's pioneering 1940 penicillin 'homebrew' had to be decidedly radical.

So his "Impure Manhattan" was not just the 'rushed' application of the naturally grown rather than waiting for the man-made stuff, it was also highly 'impure', because it had been deliberately under-washed.

Dawson's reasoning, set against the doubts of even his closest friends, was that in this way, more of his precious penicillin could be saved for his dying patients.

Dawson reasoned that the remaining impurities didn't seem to do more than offer a short term fever spike. Since penicillin itself remains about the most un-toxic lifesaver ever discovered, Dr Dawson sensed it all would balance out in the end.

(And for similar humanitarian reasons, Brisbane's Dr Vincent Duhig's homewbrew penicillin, three years later, was totally unwashed - merely strained once through a cheesecloth, no bigger than a perizoma loincloth. But with it, he saved many seemingly hopeless cases.)

To his doubting colleagues, Dr Dawson's sins were producing Underwashed Penicillin, for the Great Unwashed

In the eyes of Dawson's colleagues worldwide, his rush to put deliberately dirty penicillin into the holy temple of the human bloodstream (for this was an era when even scientists seemed to hold that our genome resided more in our 'blood' than within each cell) was only his first great sin.

His bigger sin was just who he choose to give these very first, very precious doses to, the very first doses of our present Age of Antibiotics.

To a Negro ! - and to a Jew ! - both members of the working class ! , both dying from hitherto invariably SBE, already judged by the Anglo-American medical establishment as a condition of 'no military importance' and so unworthy of scarce medical resources in wartime.

Dawson was proposing that the government had to see to the mass production of natural and impure (but good enough for dying patients) penicillin right now, and make enough for all the world in need of it.

A positive concrete example of the pious sentiments behind the Atlantic Charter and the four Freedoms : make penicillin the biggest possible of all Big Tents and invite all in.

Dr Dawson was no longer a religious believer but rather a lapsed Protestant like most of his colleagues, so no one seemed to have noticed the ironic Christian echoes in all this.

For one of Jesus's chief rhetorical styles was to deliberately compound the breaking of one social taboo by doing it in conjunction with another breaking of a social taboo --- all to reinforce his main point.

So Jesus choose not just to invite publicans, sinners and all manner of the socially marginalized into his new Big Tent Kingdom of God, he also did so at the communal dining table, hitherto a pure and safe pious Jews only sanctuary against the sin of the outer world introduced when they became a small part of the global Roman Empire.

Whether by instinct or as partial remembrance of his many years of early church going, Dawson had taken much the same rhetorical approach.

Florey's 100% Pure Penicillin, to which only the Pure & Fit are worthy

Opposing Dawson's ideas on penicillin was most of the scientific community and behind them, most of the educated world.

Their assumption was that microbial penicillin simply had to be as crude as they were, while man-made penicillin simply had to be as good as the best in human civilizations.

German chemists, for example, were widely viewed as the best in the world, and probably, in the Universe.

But as it happened the best of German chemists couldn't make life-saving penicillin, instead making only Auschwitz's life-taking Zyklon-B gas.

Florey and Fleming and the rest of the Anglo-American scientific establishment soldiered on, in part because synthetic penicillin also meant patented, controllable penicillin -- a tightly controlled and rationed penicillin that could be used, in wartime, to further the eugenic aims lacking popular support in peacetime.

Under the guise of wartime necessity, and via an artificially created scarcity, life-saving penicillin was meant to be kept for only the best of their citizens and also kept from from all those people judged eugenically as lives unworthy of penicillin.

But natural PD penicillin could be made by any old silly sentimental Hippocratic Code quoting doctor anywhere, so intent on saving the worthless dying that they were fatally undercutting the scientific establishments' eugenic intentions.

We view the clash of ideas behind WWII totally differently than 1940 did

Dawson's opening gambit in October 1940 had a much wider significance than just being seen as a in-house tiff over how best to produce and distribute wartime penicillin.

His opposition to the approach taken by Howard Florey, Alexander Fleming and the Anglo-American scientific establishment foreshadowed the approach most of us now take, seventy five years now, to the war of ideas that lay behind WWII's mass killing.

In a nutshell : we think that the war of ideas behind WWII was over whether most people back then preferred either our existing world of wide diversity or wanted a new utopian world of strict symmetrical uniformity and perfection.

But it is very important to realize that almost no one saw it that way back then ---- almost all felt a world of pure symmetrical uniformity was better scientifically and hence morally.

Simply put, Humanity changed, between how most felt in 1940 and how most feel today.

And someone and some event had to start that change.

Almost all historians will agree that the main reason why natural Biology is so much the leading science today when it was manmade Chemistry back in 1940, was as a result of the unexpected success of microbe penicillin making against the failed attempt to make commercially viable man-made penicillin during WWII.

Scientists, as a result, had to re-consider their unquestioned assumptions about the supposed lack of abilities among the weak and the small and the

This at the same time that the new knowledge of Auschwitz forced them and all the world to also consider whether we really want to remove all the small and the simple and the mis-formed to create a future utopia of perfection and uniformity.

In 1945, those seemed totally separate questions - one scientific and one moral.

But over time, we have come to see them as fused - just as Dr Dawson did, way back in 1940 : welcoming the widest possible diversity not only feels morally right, it is also now well established, scientifically, as the most successful means of ensuring longterm evolutionary survival.

Dawson's Paradox : move over Fermi : why are microbes still here ?

Dawson's two decades of studies of the unimaginably wide scope of bacterial diversity had suggested an explanation for a profound paradox : "Why are microbes still here ?"

Why is it that the creatures at the very bottom of the progressive Tree of Life, the dumb, small, weak microbes, are also the most successful form of life, surviving four billion years against all odds when some of the biggest and toughest of beings, like the dinosaurs, are long gone ?

Dawson found that microbes tolerated their defectives and mis-formed members , finding them highly useful for survival when circumstances changed and their disadvantages suddenly become advantages.

Microbes even had a unique way (HGT) to see that these once-useless now invaluable genes could be quickly pass around the entire microbe community world wide, from species to species.

Microbial genes, in effect, are PD - Public Domain, not figuratively patented and held in guarded exclusively as human genes are.

We today think these sorts of approaches to safeguarding diversity against sudden disaster and the sharing of life-saving ideas as eminently sensible.

But few realize that they originated first among the simple microbes or that it was one man, Dr Henry Dawson, that first highlighted their worth...

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