Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Florey's "Unfinished": the unfaithful Vassal #2

In 2002, Milton Wainwright published "Fleming's Unfinished" .

Fleming was not some obscure Scottish composer and the "Unfinished" was not a musical work cobbled together from unpublished musical sketches after the composer's death and based on a close study of his mature style.

In fact a famous composer is rather undone if no one cares enough about them to find something that can be hacked into shape, published and performed to acclaim.

Now Fleming ,that is Sir Alexander Fleming, as one of the most famous names of all, is hardly thought of as someone badly done by in the "fame" department .

But among scientists, he is damned by faint praise - faulted for dropping penicillin almost as soon as he picked it up - leaving millions to die needlessly.

Milton Wainwright (and Ronald Hare, Gynn Macfarlane and Kevin Brown) have all pointed to Fleming's extensive notes on penicillin from the Fall of 1928 to the Fall of 1940 as proof he didn't quickly give up totally on penicillin as an antiseptic agent.

Wainwright goes much further and claims that Fleming had hopes for penicillin as an antibiotic in the common sense - something taken internally to cure life-threatening diseases.

I, and almost every one else, disagrees that Fleming did see it that way... until August 1942 - making him penicillin's biggest Doubting Thomas.

Anyway, Wainwright implies that Fleming was just about to wrap up his 12 years of research on penicillin, when the Florey team's first article rendered it all moot. So Wainwright was going to try to finish it for him anyway.

 My belief is that Fleming had good cause to doubt penicillin's efficacy as a systemic, based on his lab work.

Fleming ,and the institute that he worked at, was never inclined 'to do the clinical' anymore than his nemesis, Howard Florey, was.

Both men avoided the wards, "preferring the deep,deep sleep of the laboratory bench to the hurly-burly of the hospital bed".

(And don't think that I haven't waited my whole life for a chance to misuse that quote in my writing...)

 Florey's father and his business was betrayed ,the Florey family claims, by an unfaithful servant - an accountant.

Certainly, Florey was notorious for acting like he trusted none of the scientists directly under his employ, while giving an unusually free hand to any researcher merely 'renting space' at his Institute.

Once bitten, twice shy, I guess.

Unfaithful Vassal #1, Ernst Chain, actually saved Florey's plodding bacon, when Chain broke ranks and broke protocol on the wide front/ slow moving penicillin project in March 1940.

This is because Unfaithful vassal #2, Leslie Epstein, didn't keep silent about the penicillin project when he returned to New York on June 10th 1940.

He talked it up to Dawson's teammate Karl Meyer that summer, along with the more unpleasant news that Chain meant to dish Meyer of some credit for the chemical meaning of Lysozyme.

 (This, the first big discovery of Fleming tied together Fleming and Florey and Chain and Epstein and Meyer and Dawson and Hobby.

 All, for different reasons, were keenly interested in its bacteria-dissolving nature and in anything (like penicillin) that looked to be similar.)

Now Chain and Meyer were both Jewish, German and unknown scientifically.

These two young bio-chemists knew they would soon end up in alien internment camps (as thousands like them eventually did) if they couldn't soon establish scientific reputations.

Every bit of citation credit helped - well worth fighting dirty over.

Meyer resolved to get revenge by beating Chain to the punch on the purification of penicillin - Chain's private baby.

He didn't start right away, but he planned to - even if Florey's team hadn't of published in August 1940.

Meyer had to wait till his team re-assembled in September 1940 after family vacations - he absolutely needed the services of a microbiologist and a clinician if he hoped to purify penicillin.

My version of Florey's "Unfinished" looks at what would have happened if Unfaithful Vassal #1, that is Chain, hadn't broke protocol on March 18th 1940 and had some of his penicillin powder stuck into two mice by the obliging Doctor John Barnes.

Florey hated doing anything twice - freely admitted hated doing routine clinical work.

(When you and I are dying of perfectly regular lobar pneumonia caused by perfectly regular Type II s. pneumococcus, that is "routine clinical work" to Florey - though possibly not to you and I !!!)

He always wanted to be the person to do something the first time - whether or not it had any meaning outside of that feat - the athlete of science.

I take some of that back - many things he disdained doing ever - first or otherwise.

He probably never ever gave a human a needle of penicillin - he had no privileges to do so but he didn't seek them either.

He was first and last a good animal experimenter.

Putting penicillin into mice was his job, not Chain's.

And Chain had agreed to it.

But to Chain , more than to Florey, penicillin was his project - a project to purify penicillin chemically.

The proof of any success he might think he had in purifying penicillin was dependent on demonstrating the material had biological activity.

For that, as Florey (and Fleming et al) could point out, testing it against bacteria in a petri dish was all that was needed - and Chain could do that, without having to gain a hard-to-get animal testing license.

The plan, the protocol, that Fleming and Chain had sold to the MRC and to the Rockefeller Foundation called for a methodical, through, step-by-step study of penicillin.

No rush - the Rockefeller grant was intended - unofficially - to run for years and the first payment wasn't even due till March 1st 1940.

So Florey might have felt that any animal testing was way too premature and could be held off till the Fall of 1940, when he might be less busy with his current, more important, research on shock and when Chain might be further along on the chemical side.

So animal protection tests on November 25th 1940, and publication in Lancet three months later, as planned - ie in late February 1941.

Too late to learn that Dawson has already announced his results at a public lecture at the NEW SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH on February 12th 1941 !

The wartime story of penicillin would then look very different.

If Florey's father was ruined by an unfaithful Vassal, Howard Florey can only be thankful that he was saved by an unfaithful Vassal....

No comments:

Post a Comment