Medicine and War

Sometimes miracles are disguised as science, or luck, or “the indomitable human spirit”.

Or medical discoveries, like penicillin.

Most people our age, at least, know that penicillin was discovered “by accident”, but how many know that the discovery occurred because of a former soldier’s skill with firearms?

Alexander Fleming, born August 6, 1881, used an inheritance from his Uncle John to complete his medical degree at St Mary’s Medical School at London University. He intended to become a surgeon. But he was also a skilled rifle shot, and had been a private in the London Scottish Regiment of the Territorial Army. He had seen many of his comrades die in battle from infection rather than wounds. After the war, he was already in med school researching and writing about infections and possible means of ending them when the local rifle club captain persuaded Fleming to stay in St. Mary’s and be a researcher instead of a surgeon. The captain wanted Fleming in his rifle club to help win matches, which is where the skill with firearms comes into the history of penicillin. Let’s hear a rousing cheer for “the British NRA”!

I wonder if it’s just me who thinks that Fleming was a half-hearted researcher. He was “not known for fastidious laboratory organization”. In fact, he left an uncovered staph culture near an open window and went off to Scotland for a vacation! Any lab today would fire such a careless researcher.

Coincidence? God’s hand in history? Take your pick.

Because when he came back, of course, he found what turned out to be a strain of penicillin growing in the staph culture, and killing it! He began to do serious research, but as such stories usually go, he didn’t have the facilities or the finances to mass-produce penicillin. And I can not understand this – “Although Fleming published the discovery of penicillin in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929, the scientific community greeted his work with little initial enthusiasm.”

So his work sat idle until 1940, when he was about to retire. Two scientists, Howard Florey and one of Florey’s employees, biochemist Dr. Ernst Chain, a Jewish German émigré, took up the challenge. With much trial and error, they found a way to mass produce it, and then discovered a more effective strain. Initially, though, “it took 2,000 liters of mold culture fluid to obtain enough pure penicillin to treat a single case of sepsis in a person.”

Not very promising, and their first patient died because they didn’t have enough penicillin to complete his treatment. A biochemist, Dr. Norman Heatley, built a makeshift “mass-production” facility, but he and Florey realized they could never produce enough to make penicillin available widely.

Heatley and Florey flew to the US to work with American scientists to find a more productive means of mass production. In the summer of 1941. Just in time for World War Two, and late enough that big-hearted humanitarians would not share the discovery with nations who would become deadly enemies. Coincidence, of course. Not God’s perfect timing.

Mary Hunt, a lab assistant came in (to the lab?) with a cantaloupe covered with a “pretty, golden mold.” You’ll never guess – that mold was Penicillium chrysogeum, which yielded 200 times as much penicillin.

Coincidence, of course. And coincidence too that it was Allied scientists who discovered it and had the ability to refine it and mutate it until it produced 1,000 times as much penicillin.

Not. Once is coincidence. Three times is God taking a hand. That’s my opinion, anyway.

“In World War I, the death rate from bacterial pneumonia was 18 percent; in World War II, it fell to less than 1 percent.”

“By the end of the war, American pharmaceutical companies were producing 650 billion units a month!” Big Pharma wasn’t always a monster. Alas for the fading of Camelot.

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