Wednesday, February 25, 2015

At Columbia-Cornell Medicial, pre-war modernity ain't dead yet

The website for New York City's Columbia-Cornell medical centre is finally touting the two famous universities' involvement in the triumph of wartime's natural penicillin.

So of course, the collective minds at C-C Medical choose to emphasize the project that quietly failed at their institute, not the one that succeeded beyond all measure.

For what they are really marking is wartime Cornell's failure to produce synthetic penicillin at commercial prices and in commercial grade purity.

Oh yes, they did produce incredibly small amounts of real penicillin but the yield was so tiny one might almost think it was an unexpected impurity in another process altogether.

Which in a sense it was : in chemical terms their synthesis did indeed produce a molecule, but it was not the beta lactam molecule fragment that gives penicillin and all subsequent beta lactams (still 75 years on, our major antibiotics) their ability to destroy bacteria without harming humans.

A very mixed result then for this attempt at fulfilling prewar modernity's dream of synthetic autarky.

What Columbia-Cornell has not yet honoured and will never yet honour (not until we can proclaim for sure that modernity is fully dead and buried) is that at Columbia, a small team led by Martin Henry Dawson worked in commensality with the tiny penicillium spores to create the world's first natural penicillin pilot plant.

And that on October 16th 1940, they gave the very first needlefuls of penicillin-the-antibiotic   to a black lad and a Jewish lad dying from then invariably fatal SBE.

Eventually their penicillin cured SBE and prevented the disease that caused it : Rheumatic heart Disease : the leading killer of school age minority, poor and immigrant kids until the 1960s.

(Clearly not a triumph any rich donor-seeking medical centre wants to tout, obviously.)

Further : that this then led a small soda pop supplier in Brooklyn to make most of the war's penicillin by natural means - the means we still use to start the production of all the beta lactams that still dominate the world we call antibiotics.

In fact, very first signal triumph for what was to become today's huge and  postmodern microbiology and microtechnology !

Shameful really...

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