No Good Deed Goes Unpunished–Part Two “Great Expectations”

Remember Great Expectations from high school English (if you were born before 1960) or the movie (Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, (if you were born later)? Pip, the humble farm lad, Miss Favesham, the conniving spinster, and Pip’s Uncle Joe, the kindly blacksmith who made things. Pip is nice to Miss Favesham so believes he has been groomed for her niece and heir, the snotty Estella. Instead, Pip gets smacked. So it went with Pip’s England and its wartime romance with America.

World War II brought penicillin to the world. British scientist Alexander Fleming discovered it as a culture on green mold in 1928. By World War II Oxford scientist Howard Florey sought to apply it to combat infections. In 1943 he led a team in Tripoli, Libya that experimented on badly injured British soldiers. Instead of amputating shattered limbs and observing raging infections, the medical standard for the past five thousand years, they instead closed the infected wounds and injected penicillin. The results were miraculous. Wounds healed, bones knitted, soldiers lived, and penicillin was a wonder drug. Libya, improbably, was the safest place on earth.

Wartime Britain, however, was not the safest place on earth, certainly not to incubate quantities of a new wonder drug. Enter Charles Dickens, or, at least, Dickensian characters worthy of all those people we met in Great Expectations . In a rare reverse of WWII Britain sending something valuable to the US, an arrangement was made to deliver English cultures to the US to develop penicillin in quantity for the war effort. The US first mass produced penicillin in a converted corn starch laboratory in Peoria, Illinois. By June 1944 there was enough penicillin in production for all US army medical personnel and the US civilian doctors and hospitals. A grateful Britain and the world praised their good fortune – lives everywhere would be saved.

Britain’s gesture for the common good was, however, about to get the Pip treatment. US pharmaceuticals that profited in the manufacturing process, including Pfizer, Squibb, Abbott, and Merck, objected to providing the process information, or the drug, back to Britain ‘for proprietary reasons’. So much for Great Expectations: The British medical service must have felt like Joe the blacksmith when his nephew Pip turns out to be an opportunist who quickly had become too important for his old friend. Despite command intervention, the bitter dispute continued when American army doctors and medics were provided ample supplies right into the combat area aid stations and field hospitals while the British army was limited to reduced penicillin for rear area hospitals.

In the end, penicillin did make it to the war in time for D-Day, with miraculous results. The family quarrel was hushed for the time being as the cost of penicillin went down from $100.00 per patient to around 55 cents per treatment. Penicillin went into battle, saved lives on an undreamt-of scale, was cheap, and, soon, would be delivered to doctors and hospitals all around the world. And Pip would get rich.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

Next: Unintended consequences: Penicillin and people and Libya: no longer the safest place on earth