Jan 22, 2009

The Mold In Dr. Flory's Coat - Eric Lax (BC Jan.09)

The strange title hides the fascinating history of penicillin. During World War I casualties often died because there was no known treatment for infections. Injuries were simply cleaned out, sewed up and a dressing applied. Most infected wounds caused death. Then in 1929 Dr. Fleming discovered what he thought was a fungus growing on a mold. He recognized that it affected (killed) many types of nearby bacteria - but he thought it was so unstable it would be impractical to pursue. He quit working on the project - but did publish a record of it. Years passed by and no further work was done.

In 1931 Dr. Flory was working in a small lab on staph infections. One of his partners, Ernst Chain, had read Dr. Fleming's papers and wrote to obtain some residue from that work. Fleming sent it and Chain began preparing the samples for testing. It was a long and tedious procedure. The results were finally published in 1940. The World War II had begun. Dr. Flory's tiny lab was severely limited and the entire production process was moved to the United States. The book gives appropriate credit to Dr. Flory and Ernst Chain whose efforts were responsible for the development of penicillin. Thousands upon thousands of lives were saved by this new wonder drug during and after W.W. II.

The point of the book is to correct the popular history giving Dr. Fleming sole credit for the development of penicillin. He had actually given up on the project a decade or more before Dr. Flory and Ernst Chain produced the wonder drug anti-biotic.

This is an excellent book, well researched and well written. It helps, but is not necessary, to have an acquaintance with chemistry, biology and medical terminology. The rest of us need to keep a dictionary close by.