Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ironically, for a man in a hurry, Howard Florey takes a very very slow plane to America

By March 1941, according to young eye witness John Hedley-Whyte , Alexander Fleming and Howard Florey both knew (via gossipy trans-Atlantic letters between eye specialists) that there had been a gratifying academic response in America to Florey's August 1940 penicillin article in LANCET.

This, after it had fallen on deaf ears throughout the rest of the world.

Much 'too gratifying' for Florey's taste (and potentially very embarrassing for Fleming).

After all, Dr Fleming had, for 12 years, consistently and confidently insisted penicillin would not work if used as an antibiotics, ie as an internal lifesaving drug against severe bacterial infections.

Fleming saw penicillin as a viable drug only if a synthetic form could be invented - and even then it would be only useful as a topical antiseptic.

Now seemingly natural penicillin had been used as an internal antibiotic by Canadian born American doctor Henry Dawson , to successfully save Charles Aronson from invariably fatal SBE.

"Ouch !" said the ever tender Fleming ego.

Florey was even more alarmed - alarmed enough to halt his own efforts to synthesis penicillin after he had treated two patients in February.

He returned, posthaste, to treating more patients and to preparing a massive - frank and complete - article.

An article completely different from his earlier short and secretive article of August 1940.

Time for The Big Dog to piss along his chosen territory limits - time for the Australian to completely destroy this upstart Canadian colonial rival , Dawson.

He would submit his article for publication before Dawson and then go to America armed with the unpublished manuscript to regain his claim to "own" penicillin's bragging rights.

His chance came in early April when Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Research Foundation was unexpectedly delayed in London when his fact-finding trip was broken by a car accident.

Florey nabbed him in his London hospital , feeding him on exaggerated tales of bombed out British drug companies.

Florey neglected to tell Weaver that Oxford hadn't been bombed and never would be bombed . Or that many drug companies - particularly outside London hadn't and won't be bombed.

But it was a seemingly good excuse to justify Florey's willingness to trade his patentable-in-Britain penicillin process off to an American drug firm merely for producing one kilogram of 2.5% (semi-pure) penicillin, to help him resume clinical trials.

For just a relatively small amount of penicillin , 40 Mega Units , it remains unclear why if his own process was so good and if Oxford had totally escaped the Blitz, that he and his top production worker, Norman Heatley, didn't simply stay home and produce it themselves rather than slowly production why waltzing off to America.

Or why a series of letters to various American drug firms, via Rockefeller Foundation research executives, together with advance copies of his latest detailed article wouldn't work just as well as a personal pitch and at the same time allow the pair to stay home producing penicillin all the while.

It was because the kilo of penicillin was never the real point.

Florey spent little time in America (only one day three months) actually doing any penicillin research there.

Instead he spend the entire three months barnstorming countless university researchers and drug research heads alike , talking up how his team had been the first to discover the method purify penicillin and then to use it as an antibiotic.

Even in a wartime crisis, there are many scientists to whom claiming personal priority for discovery is the real priority.

So Florey, the infamous Bushwacker of medical research, was out on the warpath again and taking no prisoners because he played science like he played tennis : ruthlessly.

Pleasing then to report that the man-in-a-hurry Florey got hoisted on his own petard.

For he rejected taking the conventional two week long ship route to America via Liverpool to Halifax and then by train to New York .

And he rejected paying for it on his own nickel.

But by the time the Rockefeller Foundation approved funding and the US and UK governments approved Florey's passage on the supposedly fast clipper plane route, four months had passed.

Four long months since Dawson had first revealed his clinical results with three SBE patients, before a small public lecture audience at the New School of Social Research.

In that period, Dawson had revealed more details of his results with a total of 4 SBE patients and eight eye patients ,but this time in a paper delivered before the biggest medical research conference in North America.

The story had broken wide over the wire services and been published in the New York Times and Newsweek.

Had even got reviewed overseas in South Africa's medical journal !

The main reason Weaver and Rockefeller had given Florey $6000 was to have him go to America to pool his results with that of Dawson and Rene Dubos ( working on another antibiotic) ---  all for the good of the allied effort against Hitler.

Florey stiffed Weaver, the Rockefeller Foundation, Dawson and Dubos by dog-dancing his three months in America against any chance he might even accidentally run into Dubos and Dawson.

He wasn't about to share his glory with any others, war effort or not.

Florey was at least intellectually consistent  - he had also successfully avoided aiding the WWI war effort as well.

But his long delay in getting to America (not till July 1941) certainly didn't help his claim to be first - everywhere he went, he was asked about Dawson's earlier pioneering efforts .

Perhaps the slow ship, paid on his own nickel, might have been a lot faster than the fast plane paid for by others....

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