27 August, 2008

British media and Dr. Fleming(5)

On 19 June 1944, Dr. Florey sent a letter to the Secretory of the Medical

       Dear Mellanby,

             I am writing to you to see if it is possible for you to help me out 
       of what has become a somewhat intolerable position ------
       It has long been a source of irritation to us all here to witness the
        unscrupulous campaign carried on from St. Mary's calmly to credit
        Fleming with all the work done here --- My policy here has  been
        never to interview the Press or allow them to get any information
        from us even by telephone

       ---- in contrast, Fleming has been interviewed apparently without 
       cease, photographed, etc, ------ with the upshot that he is being put 
       over as ' the discoverer of penicillin'(which is true)  with the 
       implication that he did all the work leading to the discovery of its 
       chemotherapeutic properties (which is not true) -----

       You of course know how dishonest this is and might reply 'why
       worry'. This has been our line and would continue to be if it were 
       not that my colleagues here feel things are going much too far 
       --- I have always asked people who say ' why don't you do some
       -thing?'  what should I do. I will not go to in for press publicity 
       and no-one questions the rightness of that. 

       The only suggestion which has been made of which I approve 
       is that the Medical Research Council should issue a statement 
       putting out the reverent facts of how penicillin was really intro
       -duced into medicine--- it is the only body likely to have the 
       slightest influence on the Mary's propaganda.

         I realise I am in great danger of being accused of trying to 'get 
       something for myself'. This really is not the case and I hope I have 
       always made it clear how much was due to the workers  here.
       Nor should anyone suppose that we think we have performed any
        great intellectual feats here. All we did was to do some decent 
       experiments and have the luck to hit on a substance with astonish
       -ing properties -----
                                                                            Yours sincerely,

 To this appeal Mellanby replied on 20 June, as follows:

       Dear Florey
            I was glad to have the conversation with you the other day 
        about the difficult position in which you and your colleagues
        at Oxford find yourselves, owing to the unusual attitude 
        Fleming has taken up in response to the public acclamation 
        of penicillin discoveries.

          I want to assure you in writing, as I did orally, that I think 
        the reticence as regards press interviews and the fairness 
        and even generosity in apportioning credit to Fleming of 
        all in your laboratory have been excellent and above criticism, 
        and whether judged from a short term or long term point 
        of view are, I am convinced, the most desirable. 

        You need have no doubt whatever in your mind that scientific 
        men,in this country at last, and doubtless most of them in 
        other countries, have appraised the situation correctly and 
        know that, from the point of view of scientific merit, your 
        work and that of your colleagues stand on a much higher 
        level than that of Fleming.

           I realise how irritating your position must be, if you are at 
         all affected by what appears in the public press, but you can 
         be quite certain that this is an ephemeral reaction which 
         means little or nothing, and the only appreciation which is
         worth bothering about is that of your scientific peers. 

         In time, even the public will realise that in the development 
         of this story of penicillin, the thing that has mattered most  
         has been the persistent and highly meritorious work of your 
         laboratory. The dish you have turned out is so good that 
         you must swallow the rather nauseating but temporary 
         publicity ingredient with a smile.
                                                                         Yours sincerely,

This letter could have brought little comfort to Florey or, in its counsel, 
to his Oxford colleagues who had passively to watch Fleming's meteoric 
aggrandizement 'with a smile', and to accept the fact that the greater their 
own success with penicillin the more honours--scientific and academic--- 
would be heaped on Fleming.

Mellanby probably was right in some aspects of his letter and certainly 
wrong in others. He rightly avoided embroiling the Medical Research 
Council in a wrangle about credit ------  Mellanby, in fact, underestimated 
the power of the press and the durability of a myth, and overestimated the
influence of leading scientists.

I would like to finish the story of the British media and the 
discovery of penicillin therapy,especially about Dr. Fleming 
and Dr. Florey. At present, the situation about the relationship 
between Mass media and medical knowledge or doctors have 
been dramatically changed ?

My answer is NO. Mass media still focus in human stories, 
but not in facts, or true stories. Basically there is no change 
in human nature.

Any questions:  write to Keiji Hagiwara, M.D.
                                      Kami-Ube Pediatric Clinic