I have a piece up today for Insiders on the Joel Hanrahan trade. There is no Klawchat this week due to the holidays.
If I asked you who invented penicillin, you’d probably give the standard answer of Alexander Fleming, and maybe recall a story of him accidentally getting some bread mold in a Petri dish and noticing its antibacterial qualities. Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, ended up sharing a Nobel Prize for this discovery and received accolades for decades beyond his death, even though, as Eric Lax details in the surprisingly gripping The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle, Fleming wasn’t actually the first to identify that the Penicillium notatum mold could kill several dangerous species of bacteria, nor was he at all involved in the massive effort to translate this laboratory accident into a usable weapon for human medicine.
Lax’s work is brief (263 pages) and very easy to read, but his research into the subject of the discovery and development of the now-ubiquitous drug is thorough and relied heavily on first-person accounts from the era, including journal notes, correspondence, and interviews with surviving members of the team at Oxford that undertook years of experiments to figure out how to scale mold production and also understand its functioning. Fleming did share the Nobel with the Australian Howard Florey and the German-born Ernst Chain, but the latter two, working at the Dunn School of Pathology under the privations of wartime England, managed to demonstrate that P. notatum was safe to use in humans and effective against bacteria, including Streptococcus and Staphylococcus, that at that time had no known chemotherapeutic antagonists. (That is, if you got a staph infection from a scratch from a rose thorn, there wasn’t much hope for your recovery.) Fleming wasn’t even the first to notice that P. notatum had antibacterial properties – the Belgian bacteriologist Andre Gratia apparently observed it three years earlier, but, like Fleming, didn’t follow through.
Lax attempts to shine light on those who deserve it, not just Florey and Chain but others, including Norman Heatley, without whose knowhow the drug might never have been produced in quantity. Lax goes back to the myth of Fleming’s discovery of the mold’s effects – Fleming did indeed discover it, but the legend of how he did so, which he himself propagated once Florey’s team made the drug viable, is likely false, according to Lax’s research. The focus then shifts to the Dunn School and the difficulties Florey had in assembling a team, finding funding for their work, and in producing enough of the stuff to keep the testing going – even salvaging penicillin from the urine of patients fortunate enough to receive it, as more than half of what a patient was given was eventually excreted via the kidneys. Lax’s access to contemporary documents and later in-person accounts allows him to flesh out the personalities of these central actors, as well as providing details on some of the early successes and failures of the drug as the scientists figured out how best to use it, including the now-common practice of administering an antibiotic for a week or more past the disappearance of symptoms. I’ll also leave the very amusing detail of how pencillin extraction moved from P. notatum to the more potent P. chrysogenum to those of you who choose to read the book.
Where Lax could have gone further was in explaining the science behind penicillin’s action, which he mentions just briefly near the end of the book. Penicillin is a beta-lactam antibiotic that inhibits cell wall development in bacteria, especially Gram-positive ones – meaning that when one cell tries to divide, its cell wall will rupture rather than expanding and closing around each resulting cell, so no new cell is formed and the original cell becomes a wall-less and very fragile spheroplast. Resistance to penicillin also only earns scant mention, again at the very end of the book, with some polite hand-waving about the subject and positive words about penicillin’s continued effectiveness against Streptococcus, but no mention of the rise of Staphylococcus bacteria that have evolved resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics in general. This is a history of science book that leans more toward history yet is a little light on the science for my tastes, but that may increase its accessibility to less science-inclined readers and absolutely made it an easier book to tackle.
If you like your popular science books a little heavier on the science, I also just read Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist ($5.98 through that link), which draws parallels between various famous practicioners of the fine arts (and one very famous chef) and later discoveries, mostly by neurologists, that showed that the artists’ insights into human psychology and behavior were biologically justified. Lehrer’s star was nearly extinguished when the first chapter of his 2012 book Imagine – a book I enjoyed tremendously – was found to contain fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, after which the publisher pulled the book from publication entirely rather than edit and re-release it. (It’s still a great book if you want to learn more about how to be more creative, especially in the workplace.) Proust Was a Neuroscientist is more like a collection of nonfiction stories that share a basic narrative structure: Lehrer introduces a famous writer, musician, or artist, describes his/her oeuvre and a particular advance or insight for which s/he is known, then explains the science behind that insight, discovered decades after the artist’s work.
My favorite chapter was, of course, the one on chef and culinary writer Auguste Escoffier, one of the fathers of modern French cuisine and the man who first wrote down a specific method – not just a recipe, but a concept – for making brown veal stock, now the foundation for an entire family of sauces without which French cuisine as we know it would not exist. Escoffier’s great contribution, according to Lehrer, was his understanding of what we now know as umami, the so-called “fifth taste” – the intensity of flavor produced by glutamate, which is recognized by the tongue and is found in rich foods from Parmiggiano-Reggiano to anchovies to soy sauce to cured meats to mushrooms. (It’s also found in powdered form as monosodium glutamate.) The chemical basis behind Escoffier’s insight was first discovered after he had already risen to prominence in European food circles and wasn’t fully demonstrated until long after his death. Lehrer uses these eight examples to plead for greater interaction between the science and art worlds, arguing that each can learn from the other if they speak a common, “third” language. That message is largely lost on me as someone who works in neither sphere, but some of the anecdotes, including the ones on Paul Cézanne and Igor Stravinsky, were fascinating reads because they involved areas of the fine arts in which I have little to no background, even as a casual fan. I don’t take a jaundiced view of Lehrer’s earlier work just because of the debacle around Imagine, so just as I still recommend that book with the caveats around its veracity, I recommend Proust Was a Neuroscientist as well even if its underlying message isn’t as powerful.