Sunday, March 1, 2015

When historians won't read

Scientists believe scientific discoveries merely reveal physical processes that have been actually going everywhere and for all time, undetected by humans until now, working themselves out according the universal and timeless laws of nature.

So recording exactly when scientists first noticed such natural events is irrelevant.

The only date worth recording is when a credible (insert here : left undefined) scientific journal first publishes the discovery ---and even then merely for reasons of settling competing personal, institutional and national claims of priority.

Mrs Martin Henry Dawson's life story suggests she had a flair for creating favourable publicity.

Her husband's life story suggests that he was a typical conventional non-alpha male scientist of the Modernity era in many ways - such as his flair for avoiding attracting any favourable publicity to himself or his scientific efforts.

Too bad for millions of wartime patients dying for lack of penicillin.

Because underneath all of even the most folksy of top scientists are some very sharp elbows --- ambition counts at least as much in doing good work, good scientific work included , as talent, hard work and great luck do.

In May 1941, Dawson got real real lucky when his modest conference report on his team's modest efforts to make pilot plant amounts of natural penicillin to try and save the lives of young people dying of SBE (endocarditis) got extraordinary wide publicity in the national and even international press.

It could have been - it should have been if Dawson really wanted to successfully treat the SBEs - a even bigger success in the international media by the fall of 1941, if Dawson had bothered to mention in May the date when he had first done all this.

Because by September 1941, the world's science journalists could then have compared the date of Howard Florey's first treatment of a patient with injected penicillin (February 1941) with Dawson's first injected penicillin to a patient (October 1940) and proclaimed a major medical first for this Canadian born NYC doctor.

Florey did have very sharp elbows indeed and he did think to include his first injection date as part of his effort for staking his penicillin priority in his August 1941 article.

Indeed, in that same article, he avoided noting that Dawson had published his own claim earlier than Florey --- despite Florey knowing this from both colleagues reports and from wide press reports.

Technically he could get away with this, though morally skating very close to the wind, because Dawson had merely published his report by delivering it before a huge international conference of doctors and then had the hosting society include it in its published abstracts.

By the rules of scientific priority that doesn't count to be reported as an earlier scientific priority.

despite the fact that in 1940, most journals' peer review consisted merely of the editor and his friends' informal assessment - by contrast, a panel of senior scientists of the big scientific society holding the conference had to okay Dawson being able to present his paper in person.

Florey was determined to redeem his family's name and if he had to stab colleagues in the back to make penicillin his own personal claim to fame, so be it.

Dawson's published silence on the date of his first penicillin injection left people to infer that it had to come after that of Florey.

In March1944, in a major article in JAMA, Dawson finally said he had started work on penicillin in the Fall of 1940.

But he still refused to date his first penicillin injections into SBE patients, an event he mentions in his same article - even though he knows, by Florey's published word - that Dawson's own efforts were first by four months.

His co-author, Gladys Hobby, was as infuriatingly modest as himself.

Evidence suggests her memory wasn't great for historical dates anyway.

But in January 20 1945, another Dawson JAMA article ,this time on Dawson's SBE penicillin efforts alone , does open up - a little.

The new co-author , Thomas H Hunter, is the reason I am sure.

But talk about 'burying the lede' : the date of his historical first injections is buried 18 pages in, added as a last minute historical aside while discussing case number 16 of this SBE series !

Dawson correctly gives the dates as October 16th and 17th 1940 but he then intimates that there was only one, not two, patient - the patient being discussed as case #16 and he still insists, that in his opinion, this event was the first in America.

Neither of these latter claims were fully true - and he knew it !

I will never know why he said this --- and he died a month later.....

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