Saturday, October 18, 2014

Updating J D Ratcliff's wartime penicillin classic, YELLOW MAGIC

I like to think that my "UN-SUPER HEROES" is an 21st century updating of JD (John Drury) Ratcliff's written-to-order 1945 popular science classic "YELLOW MAGIC" .

Ratcliff wrote the facts as truthfully he knew them in 1945 (or was told about them by the few penicillin participants he was able to contact firsthand).

Since late 1941, Penicillin had been surrounded by an ever more effective wall of wartime censorship all over the Allied world.

This allowed anyone involved in wartime penicillin's development to spin their own take to Ratcliff, without fear Ratcliff would have any access to paper documents to query their oral account.

Since 1945 , many of the paper documents have been archived or made public via scholarly articles and books.

But no one has since tried to do with the dramatic tale of wartime penicillin what Ratcliff ( following somewhat upon Paul de Kruif's style) did so well in his little volume.

JD could make any Science story come alive simply by re-telling it in a series of dramatic scenes.

And by freely adding his purple imaginings whenever his participants' eye witness accounts of specific incidents failed to actually recall much color or specifics.

Remember - unlike with the contemporary workings out of atomic energy and atomic bombs - no participants in this particular medical story had any sense - until mid 1943 - that they were making world-shaking history instead of just making penicillin.

So the drama and the little personal details were generally liberally 'recalled' later - after penicillin had become world famous - rather than being accurately recorded at the time.

So we only know the distinctive smell of wartime (crude) penicillin because an otherwise ordinary 1945 war nurse recounts the smell , in passing , in her much later memoir of combat hospital experiences.

Like all writers and historians, JD had to first hear all and read all of the varying accounts about wartime penicillin and then insert his reasoned opinion as to which composite account was mostly likely to be correct.

I can't tell you what SBE patients Aaron Leroy Alston and Charles Aronson felt like on October 16 1940 - but I can and will tell you how SBE patients their age tended to act at that stage in their disease.

The same with the smell of Dawson's crude penicillin as that first historic ampoule was broken ---- I'll have to use that wartime combat nurse's description - his penicillin , being much cruder, could only have smelt worse.

 I do not know how the specific ward nurses looking after Aronson and Alston on October 16th 1940 felt about a new medicine that smelt like a return to dirty dank moldy old basements.

But we do know lots about the house-proud nurses of the 1940s , in the days before handling high tech machines replaced pails and mops in the priority list of nurse training !

I won't invent speech inside quote marks - if it is inside quote marks, it will only be there because it is a direct quote from a contemporary document.

Instead I will use a lot of an old fashioned form of free indirect speech - something quite common until the 20th century , when authors were strongly discouraged from commenting inside their own works .

I will freely intermingle my comments (my opinions) in a sound alike version of those particular participants' voice, as I try to imagine what typical participants of their age, nationality, class, gender etc would likely say at that place and point in time.

I call my book a drama in five acts - so dramatizing each scene really isn't much of a stretch  ....

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