Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Manhattan (natural penicillin) Project : Googling up a Ghost

How an amateur historian in a small city used the new Google Search tools to recover the lost story of wartime penicillin


I first fell upon the lost story of wartime penicillin way back in the Dark Ages --- late in 2004.
My computer way back then was a Mac Plus with 1 meg of RAM and a 20 meg hard drive. My internet access was via dialup and I used text-base Lynx as my search engine.

With this primitive setup , I had still managed to play an important role in a highly successful national political campaign across the vastness of Canada.

I live in Halifax Canada, a small city by world standards, with at best a metro population of only about 300,000.

It holds Canada's biggest defence base, is one of Canada's five regional administrative capitals and is a major university town with half dozen universities.

But despite the fact that all the province's universities pool their libraries into one lending consortium, they collectively still don't rate as even a middle level research university library by Canada's modest standards, let alone by world class standards.

I had a BA from Halifax's Dalhousie University, nominally in political science, but really in Nova Scotian culture and history.

Locally I was considered to be a knowledgable amateur historian, particularly about the under-explored oddities of Nova Scotia history.

In fact, I only got interested in the history of early DNA and later wartime penicillin (of which I knew little and cared less about at the time) because three of the most notable figures were Nova Scotians - albeit all living and researching in New York City.

Now my on-the-ground knowledge of London UK is considerable - particularly compared to the sum total of seven busy hours I have spent to date on the ground in NYC !

But I must say that like any well educated English speaker worldwide, I feel I know the different neighbourhoods of both NY and London quite well thank you very much - from my lifetime of reading, watching movies and listening to music.

Like almost all historians, I was completely certain that any amount of physical walkabout over the geography of 21st century NYC would have still told me very little about how people in 1930s NY once felt and acted.

It proved the case - the streets of NYC looked exactly liked the (filmed on location) streets of LAW AND ORDER... that I already knew so well.

But even today in 2015, most archival material in archives or libraries is still not online.

So living in world class cities like NYC, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Los Angeles still allows an amateur researcher take the local bus to do their primary research --- and still come up with a story of interest to an entire world.

The rest of us need to book expensive international flights and pay big city hotel bills for months at a time to do the same amount of research a local amateur (or local professional) historian can do over an extended period of weekends and evenings.

Fortunately I soon realized that while much of the lost history of wartime penicillin indeed lay in the archives of London and New York, where all previous books on wartime penicillin had been researched and written, much of that lost history was lost precisely because it hadn't occurred there.

Of the various earliest penicillin historians, perhaps only Australian science journalist Lennard Bickel (biographer of Nobel-winning penicillin pioneer Sir Howard Florey) back in the late 1960s and early 1970s had actually visited some of the off the beaten path penicillin sites early enough to catch some of their original flavour and speak to still living participants.

The later writers had fewer eye witnesses still alive and so had to hew closer to the physical paper archival sources located (in those pre-internet age) in just a few key cities - London, New York and Washington.

But with various Google search tools coming on stream in the early 21st century and with a better computer with true broadband, I quickly discovered I had better (and free) access to local newspapers' primary accounts of the more obscure aspects of wartime penicillin sitting in my own living room than did professional historians with sizeable research budgets sifting through OSRD penicillin-related vertical files in some Washington DC archives.

I still hadn't gained anything on the local advantage of living in a world class city and researching a world class local story via city bus.

But I had gained the local amateur historians' traditional advantage of having much more time to do research than do typical professionals.

Magazine editors, book publishers, tenure committees are always pushing professionals to conclude their research and publish the results.

All topics are badly under-researched thanks to this pressure. Professionals just hope to go back later for another bite or two at the subject area.

But I had lots of time, for several different reasons.

I faced no tenure committee or granting agency deadline.

All the key participants were dead by the time I had arrived - no longer any urgency to interview before they passed on.

And I was doing paradigm creating research not normal research - to use Thomas Kuhn's terms.

The official version of wartime penicillin had successfully withstood superficial challenges to its myth because it had all its archival evidence favouring its claims in a few large well organized collections --- and historians are only human.

They much rather devote all their energy to extensive close reading of a few big well organized definitives archives on a subject and then call it a day.

Why spend years and much money trying to track down vagaries that might or might not exist in the end?

So most historians - even historians sceptical of the offical version history of penicillin still end up in the same few spots, visiting the usual suspects.

In particular, Washington holding the NRRL, OSRD and NAS COC collections and London (and nearby Oxford) for the Fleming and Florey collections.

In the New York area, Merck (a major keeper of the official version flame) was far more active with its wartime archives than as Pfizer - not really a part of the official version.

By contrast - and almost by definition - those wartime penicillin activities arising up against the OSRD-Oxford cartel had no official Allied governments' support or funding.

And without either, the institutions employing these renegades had no incentive to collect and keep archival records of their wartime penicillin activities.

Anyone doing this type of research was going to have to devote lots of time ferreting out what evidence that could be found here and there and everywhere.

I saw no current researchers who still cared that deeply and exclusively about wartime penicillin - official or un-official version.

I had no competition - I could take my time.

And I needed it : initially I merely suspected mysteries more by the presence of submerged hints and black holes in the evidence than with some sense that I knew exactly what I was looking for and exactly where to find it !

I just sat at my home computer patiently typing in endless variants on the few key words I had, hoping Google would eventually throw up some unexpected new document to point me ever onward.

And a dozen years later, I think I am finally seeing a clearer view of the alternative penicillin history ....

No comments:

Post a Comment