Saturday, October 4, 2014

October 16 1940 : the Eyes of History focus in on a small hospital room on the nearly deserted Columbia University campus

Global contemporary opinion (and global contemporary journalism) was unanimous : the most important event in the world on October 16 1940 was Registration Day for America's first ever peacetime draft.

A world at war (Allied, Axis and Neutral) was momentarily united in wanting to know two things and two things only.

After the deprivation of the decade-long Great Depression and all the American university anti-war protests , were the young men of the world's greatest power able to fight and were they willing to fight ?

The fate of the world literally hung in the balance.

So all contemporary eyes were on the registration of America's potential A1 males.

But the Eyes of History, distilling events through the long glass tubes of time and sober second thoughts , may differ from global contemporary opinion , even when that global opinion was as united as it was on October 16 1940.

Because history - 75 years on - is agreed that a rare world-changing event actually did happen in America on October 16 1940 but it wasn't the coming of the Draft.

Instead it all happened, unnoticed at the time , in a small hospital room on the medical campus of New York City's Columbia University.

Despite the fact that almost all assumed that both in that hospital room would shortly be dead from then invariable fatal subacute bacterial endocarditis , the young black man (Aaron Leroy Alston) and the Jewish youth (Charles Aronson) had been earlier been dutifully registered by a selective service team specially assigned to hospital patients.

Clearly these two were not just 4F , but 'the 4Fs of the 4Fs'.

But one man - Dr (Martin) Henry Dawson - didn't assume their death was inevitable.

He hoped to have them both up and around and turning up for their selective service medical exam when called.

The engine of his hopes lay in a small hypodermic needle in his hand.

By his own admission his medicine was new, untested, crude.

To the sceptical nurses watching in the corridor, it was also as dirty as rust and smelt like a moldy old damp basement.

Their response was natural - successful 1940 nursing was less about high tech machines and more about extreme cleanliness.

The nurses in the corridor couldn't believe that Dr Dawson was actually thinking of injecting something so dirty and foul smelling into the temple of the human body.

But he was - and he did.

And with that needle sliding into the young mens' arm began the Age of Antibiotics - because that crude moldy powder was penicillin, made - as the nurses suspected - from a mold of the penicillium family .

This was the first time ever that penicillin (available for a dozen years as a lab clearing agent) was given its proper - real job - lifesaving.

Thanks partly to that October 16 1940 penicillin shot, Charles Aronson went on to beat his endocarditis death sentence.

A small Brooklyn supplier to the soda pop industry (Pfizer !) got inspired by Dawson's success with penicillin and went on not just to produce most of WWII's penicillin but also to develop the biological production techniques that still used to produce most of today's antibiotics.

All of this was reported in a seminal book (Penicillin : Meeting the Challenge) by a women scientist (Dr Gladys L Hobby) who was not merely a close participant at many of the seminal events of the entire Age of Antibiotics but who was part of the tiny team that day in that small hospital room.

She confirmed her memories by consulting hospital records that have since been destroyed and she too has since died.

It has been possible to trace relatives of Aaron Alston but the sole survivor of the pair, Charles Aronson, has slipped from the grasp of historians.

The best hope we have of learning more about this Patient Zero of our Age of Antibiotics is - ironically enough - in those registration records complied by the Selective Service personnel and now held in the US government archives in St Louis.

So in the end, in a surprisingly satisfying way - both stories (Draft and Penicillin) come together to a happy conclusion...

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