Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Discovery of Penicillin and the Epidemic of Diabetes

Today is the 83rd anniversary of one of the most important holy shit moments in human history, Alexander Flemming's discovery of penicillin. As much as focused, goal-driven investigations are important, basic research, the "let's see what happens when we look at this" type of approach has opened doors we never even considered the existence of and changed the way we exist in the world.

Flemming was culturing the bacteria that causes staph infections when his samples got contaminated with mold. He noticed that at the edges of the mold, the bacteria was being dissolved. Curious, he grew the mold itself and found that it had a by-product that killed certain types of bacteria. This effect had been observed before in 1896 by Ernest Duchesne in France where he was a medical student and it would be another 13 years before the by-product could be identified and put into usable form as penicillin by other researchers, but it was the light bulb going off in Flemming's head when he saw the effect that forever altered the way humans live.

The production of penicillin was concurrent with other major scientific and technological advances. At the same time that Einstein was changing the way we see space, Freud and Piaget were changing the way we look at the mind, and genetics was emerging from Thomas Hunt Morgan's fruit flies to change how we saw the body. Air travel and long distance communication were becoming part of normal life. We could conquer gravity and distance. Humans of that generation had a life that significantly differed from the entire history of humanity before it. And here was a substance that could with a single wave of what appeared to be a magic wand eliminate any number of illnesses that had been fatal, had caused long, painful debilitating slides to a premature demise. Life had always been a cosmic lottery of death where suddenly sickness could randomly pop up and seize anyone. To live was be always aware of life's fragility, its contingency, its limitations. But suddenly humans had devised a simple way to step out of the state of nature, to rise above it, to move into the sunlight and out of the shadow of death taking what seemed like a very real step towards immortality. If we were no longer bound to the surface of the Earth, why should we be bound by death? Technology, it now seemed, was a wedge that separated us from the rest of being.

And in some way it is true. We were stunningly able to shape our environment instead of adapting to it. This meant the physical landscape, the biological landscape, the psychological landscape, and even with penicillin, our internal landscape could all be chosen as we saw fit in ways to advantage. We became intentional beings, not merely natural beings. And with this change came an arrogance and a sense of entitlement and a belief that anything manufactured would be intrinsically superior to anything natural.

This is the mindset that colored our culture in the 40s and 50s. "Futuristic" and "modern" were terms with undeniably positive connotations. Simpler and easier were the buzzwords attached to the homes of the future, with appliances that would free humans from the dull drear of normal life, leaving incredibly large stretches of time for that which makes humans exceptional. It was truly an electrical renaissance that was looming, we thought.

But it also came with television, tv dinners, and Levittown. Simpler and easier failed to create a new environment of human excellence, just one of sloth and high fructose corn syrup. Vacuous entertainment and empty calories became the national past times, but because both came to us in packages designed by modern corporations who were the way to the future, it was held that they must be devoured with gusto as they lead the way forward. Oreos and sodas aplenty, vegetables -- especially those not from the evil empire of Monsanto -- not so much.

And so we come to a society in which diabetes is not an epidemic, but a regular and expected part of the aging process. Americans will not need passports in the future, just a blood glucose reading. In our excitement to distance ourselves from the dangers of the past, we have created a more toxic environment where our bodies and our minds are controlled for profit, not for health. But we embrace it because we come from a place of optimism about the future. We have created and discovered wonderful things that make lives richer and longer. The discovery of penicillin changed not only the human lifespan, but in doing so, has changed the way we can look at life itself as an open opportunity, not a teetering, questionable maybe. But in that stance, we have also allowed ourselves to be played. The intoxication of the promise that penicillin brought has resulted in health, but also its opposite.