May 26, 2004: Headlines: COS - Micronesia: Writing - Micronesia: Medicine: Penicillin: New York Times: In his admirable, superbly researched (and alluringly titled) new book, the Los Angeles-based biographer RPCV Eric Lax rather better known for tackling more obvious subjects like Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart has turned his attention to the unsung heroes of the penicillin saga

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Micronesia: Peace Corps Micronesia : The Peace Corps in Micronesia: May 26, 2004: Headlines: COS - Micronesia: Writing - Micronesia: Medicine: Penicillin: New York Times: In his admirable, superbly researched (and alluringly titled) new book, the Los Angeles-based biographer RPCV Eric Lax rather better known for tackling more obvious subjects like Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart has turned his attention to the unsung heroes of the penicillin saga

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-115-42.balt.east.verizon.net - 151.196.115.42) on Thursday, May 27, 2004 - 5:08 pm: Edit Post

In his admirable, superbly researched (and alluringly titled) new book, the Los Angeles-based biographer RPCV Eric Lax rather better known for tackling more obvious subjects like Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart has turned his attention to the unsung heroes of the penicillin saga

In his admirable, superbly researched (and alluringly titled) new book, the Los Angeles-based biographer RPCV Eric Lax  rather better known for tackling more obvious subjects like Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart  has turned his attention to the unsung heroes of the penicillin saga

In his admirable, superbly researched (and alluringly titled) new book, the Los Angeles-based biographer RPCV Eric Lax rather better known for tackling more obvious subjects like Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart has turned his attention to the unsung heroes of the penicillin saga

New Look at Drug's Genesis Offers a Cure for Anonymity

By SIMON WINCHESTER

Published: May 26, 2004

These are good times for the forgotten heroes of science, for the also-rans, for the runners-up. In the last couple of years there have been big and well-received books about Rosalind Franklin, who should have been given more ample credit for her work on the discovery of DNA, and Alfred Russel Wallace, whose work on evolutionary theory matches that of Darwin and who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." There have been laudatory articles about the work of Fred Hoyle, who figured out where all the atoms in the human body came from, but whose colleague Willy Fowler won the kudos for saying so, and Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars but is all but forgotten beyond astronomy and remains unhonored.

Now in his admirable, superbly researched (and alluringly titled) new book, the Los Angeles-based biographer Eric Lax rather better known for tackling more obvious subjects like Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart has turned his attention to the unsung heroes of the penicillin saga. That saga, perhaps the most exciting tale of science since the apple dropped on Newton's head, is dominated in the public mind by the severe and patrician figure of the Scotsman who first noticed the antibiotic properties of the mold Penicillium notatum, Alexander Fleming.

By reminding us of the stellar contributions to that same story that were made by the Oxford University team of Howard Florey, Ernest Chain and a hitherto utterly anonymous chemist named Norman Heatley, Mr. Lax has performed a service to science of which he should be proud and all must be grateful.

He was prompted to do so in 1999, after reading an obituary of Anne Miller, the first American to have been given the newly-minted wonder drug. She had been injected with it in New Haven in March 1942, after coming down with a furious infection in the aftermath of a miscarriage. She recovered almost immediately, prompting the drug companies that had been toying with the notion of manufacturing penicillin to swing into full-scale production.

Within months all the scourges of war and poverty and dirt gonorrhea, meningitis, anthrax, diphtheria, gas gangrene, tetanus and a foul complaint of the soldiery called lumpy abscesses had at last met their match, via a needle and a tincture of mold extract; and until the dread modern concerns of drug-resistance raised their head, so penicillin stood in the vanguard of anti-bacterial drugs, the greatest medical advance of all time.

But what Mr. Lax has done at long last is to hand out the properly deserved degrees of merit to all who were involved in the making of this extraordinary and fugitive piece of magical chemistry. If his prompt came in the form of that brief obituary (and its expansion by Alistair Cooke into a particularly memorable "Letter from America"), it was his adroit realization that there was a mystery to solve, and so probably another story to be told, that led to this book.

The mystery is one that can be readily seen by looking at the index entry for "Fleming, Alexander" in Gwyn Macfarlane's supposedly definitive biography of penicillin's discoverer, published in 1984. The index entry is 87 lines long. A third of these are devoted to Fleming's list of honors and honorary degrees. But between the entry about the discovery of penicillin and one noting the first systemic use of penicillin there are only 14 lines, and one of those is a reference to Fleming's doubt that the drug might ever be useful.

Yet fully 13 years separated the two events: Fleming discovered the mold's effect in 1928, and the first human guinea pig (guinea pigs themselves react badly to the drug; mice were used instead) was injected in 1941. So just what was happening in those 13 intervening years? Why did it take so long to turn an interesting chemical conceit into a life-saving piece of pharmaceutical weaponry? And during those years what contribution exactly did Fleming himself make? What was it that permitted him, primus inter pares, eventually to be buried in St. Paul's Cathedral as one of the most honored and revered Britons of all time?

Mr. Lax sets the record straight. He tells us just what took place following that fate-directed moment in 1938 when an Einstein look-alike from Berlin, Ernest Chain, stumbled across Fleming's 1929 paper announcing the interesting properties of the mold (which he had found in old tennis shoes, among other places). Chain and Florey, then working in Oxford, decided to investigate further. They enlisted the brilliant and modest chemist Norman Heatley to join their team, and then slowly and painstakingly they produced enough pure crystalline penicillin to test on sick mammals.

The results were stunning. Lives were saved in their tens of thousands. American drug companies caught on to the profitability of the drug and made millions. And in a monstrous piece of injustice Fleming's old boss, Almroth Wright, wrote a letter to The Times of London saying that the laurel wreath for the making of the miracle belonged to Fleming.

For years the supporters of the Oxford team tried in vain to have the world honor them as well. And true, Florey and Chain did join Fleming in winning the 1945 Nobel Prize; but the headline in The New York Times said it all: "Fleming and Two Co-Workers Get Nobel for Penicillin Boon." They were regarded merely as the hired help. And these days they are all but forgotten.

As is Heatley, the modest chemist who did all the hardest laboratory work, both in Oxford and in Peoria, Ill., where penicillin was first made commercially. He died in January, in his old Oxford cottage, having in the weeks before spoken at length to Mr. Lax, perhaps the first writer ever to have taken him seriously, as he does in this valuable and eminently readable book.

Simon Winchester, author of "The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary," is working on a book about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.




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Story Source: New York Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Micronesia; Writing - Micronesia; Medicine; Penicillin

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