Lauren Belfer has just published a new novel, A Fierce Radiance, about the development of penicillin during the early days of World War Two, when development of the drug was a vital national security issue, as well as a matter of compassion and humanitarian relief.
And of course, today, seven decades later, nothing has changed. Our ability to win wars, for example, is directly challenged by out completely understandable squeamishness about death, injury, and disfigurement. And while we are spending billions on military medicine, we should be spending more, and doing more. If we did, we would not only see greater progress on behalf of our warriors, but we would see the development of new industries on the homefront. That was the story of plastic surgery, which emerged in Britain during World War One--and has been both a a help, and a profit center, ever since.
But today, we just seem less interested in that sort of profound medicine. As a society, we have drifted into the strange position of wanting to pay for the disease after the fact, not prevent it or cure it.
The New York Times gave A Fierce Radiance a nice review on Sunday, saying in part:
Lauren Belfer’s death-haunted medical thriller begins in December 1941, just three days after the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. Claire Shipley, a photojournalist working for the phenomenally successful Life magazine, has come to the Rockefeller Institute in New York to record one of the earliest trials of a new medication called penicillin. Highly effective in experiments involving bacterial infections in mice, this substance is about to be tried on a human. Will the drug work? Or will it have serious, potentially lethal, side effects? For the patient and the doctors, there’s no real choice: this experiment is a desperate last chance for a 37-year-old man who had been robustly healthy until a seemingly harmless scratch, acquired during a game of tennis, rapidly developed into a life-threatening infection.
Claire’s assignment introduces her to the world of medical research — and to Jamie Stanton, the dedicated physician who will administer the penicillin, along with his younger sister, Tia, a mycologist who serves as his chief assistant. These highly attractive, hard-working siblings are motivated by a personal tragedy: their parents perished in the great influenza epidemic that swept the country just after World War I.
Claire Shipley has suffered deep losses too, but hers are of more recent vintage. Seven and a half years earlier, her 3-year-old daughter died of a blood infection after an apparently minor accident, a circumstance not unlike that of the patient she has just photographed. In the aftermath of her daughter’s death, Claire’s marriage collapsed, leaving her the sole custodian of her surviving child, an 8-year-old son. Claire’s stepfather and mother have also died. For her, the last 10 years have been a “decade of death.”
The day after Claire’s initial photo shoot, she returns to find the critically ill patient looking fully recovered. He’s awake and alert, freshly bathed and shaved, and reading the newspaper. But, as Tia Stanton explains, this miracle may be short-lived. If a relapse occurs, there will be no way to save the patient because there is no more medication. Penicillin grows agonizingly slowly, harvested from small droplets that leak from a kind of green mold. The hospital’s supply is being cultivated in makeshift rows of sideways-turned milk bottles, even in bedpans, but the patient has received all the available supply. Sure enough, within hours he begins to fail, and by the end of the day he is dead.
Belfer uses the urgency of the Stantons’ mission — finding a means of quickly mass-producing penicillin — to add drama to the romantic attraction that develops between Claire and Jamie. America has just become a country at war, with soldiers soon to be dying from infected battlefield wounds. The novel’s tension increases as Jamie is called away by the government to oversee and coordinate penicillin projects in laboratories throughout the nation. Back in New York, Tia continues her own research, which may put her in personal danger. And as the race for lucrative pharmaceutical patents on penicillin’s so-called cousins heats up, Claire’s father, a wealthy tycoon, begins to play a significant role in the ever widening narrative.