Wednesday, June 24, 2015

October 16 1940 : ending the era of human-only progress and ushering in our era of bio-diverse cleverness

Purifying and then synthesizing such a comparatively small molecule like penicillin (produced after all by the primitive and simple basement slime) couldn't take very long, said an entire generation of chemists.

And then, and only then, with plenty of pure man-made penicillin at hand, would it finally be safe for clinicians to inject the blessed stuff into a dying patient's bloodstream.

But by mid October 1940, one clinician (Dr Martin Henry Dawson) had had more than enough of waiting for human chemists to put their synthetic money where their hubristic mouth was.

for even his highly talented co-worker, biochemist Dr Karl Meyer, had also failed to make much initial progress on determining the structure of the penicillin molecule.

And Meyer was miles and miles away from attempting to synthesize the stuff.

Dawson had two dying patients before him, for whom he sincerely believed penicillin was their only possible lifeline.

He knew they would need a great deal of clinical penicillin to be saved, but only a little penicillin was at hand.

But a little was better than nothing --- and even a token injection might raise their morale higher even if it did little to lower the microbe count inside their damaged heart valves.

The relatively small amounts of native penicillin that the tiny team at NYC's Columbia Presbyterian medical complex had grown so far had all been divided between Dawson's co-worker Gladys Hobby's microbiological tests and Meyer's (and his assistant Eleanor Chaffee's) chemical tests.

But in 1940, Henry Dawson had a much greater faith in the ability of (raw - impure - natural - native - crude) fungus-made penicillin to cure patients than any other doctor in the world.

Like many other infection experts around the world, he had read of Howard Florey's Oxford team's success with raw penicillin injections in safely curing many experimental infections in many different animals.

But all the other infection experts had read and remained unmoved .

Unmoved to to attempt injecting raw penicillin into humans, whether healthy volunteers or dying patients.

Not so Dawson - he had already had over a dozen years experience confirming that the supposedly simple and primitive microbes had at least as much native chemical ability under their tiny belts as had enormous conference halls filled with chemical PhDs.

His own colleagues had long grown weary of his endless informal lectures on the ability of tiny microbes to practise genetic/chemical engineering (bacterial transformation - HGT) at a skill level that the best human geneticists could only dream of.

The man was not just a bore, he was also 'letting down the side', at least as the Era of Human-Only Progress saw it.

For he had long claimed that the tiny, ancient and simple microbes were much, much cleverer than they were ever given credit for - cleverer than the most civilized of humanity, in many ways.

But he was harmless enough - for all this had only been talk so far.

But on this day - October 16th 1940 - Dawson decidedly 'went off the reservation' and crossed a deep cultural Rubicon.

For on this day, Dr Dawson finally gave his tiny chemists 'a fair go' when he injected SBE patients Aaron Alston and Charles Aronson with fungus-made penicillin.

Thus ending The Era of Human-Only Progress ---- and ushering in our present Era of Bio-Diverse Cleverness...

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