04 July 2020
I never passed a chemistry exam in my life. Not in high school, and not in college, and I haven’t tried one since. In fact, I always thought the world is a better place because I never got hired by a research lab. Who knows what might have happened if the boss told me to find new cures for old diseases?
In retrospect, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad.
A lot of new medical advances and treatments were discovered by gosh and by golly. They popped up while the researchers were looking for something else. No doctor ever started looking for a cure for leukemia by wondering if mustard gas would help. Yet, that’s where they found one.
As I discovered a couple of weeks ago, a breakthrough happened in 1943 when doctors treated mustard gas victims in the south-eastern Italian seaport of Bari. If you’re locating it on a map, it’s down near the heel of the Italian boot. An American freighter was waiting to unload a cargo of 2,000 mustard gas bombs when a Luftwaffe squadron flew over. They dived, bombed and sank most of the ships in the harbour, releasing a cloud of the gas over the town.
Thousands of people were killed, injured, or infected. Autopsies revealed that the mustard gas killed rapidly dividing white blood cells. After a six year gestation, on 15 March 1949, Mustargen became the first chemotherapy drug to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of cancer.
Maybe I could have made something of myself in a laboratory after all. I spent a fair bit of my high school chemistry class time marvelling at how small balls of silver mercury rolled around the desktop making larger balls, and how they were much heavier than they looked. I even wrote about it in my notebook.
When I spilled liquid on my Hilroy, I discovered what happens when you use a Bunsen burner to dry it out. It destroyed the notes and earned me a trip to the Principal’s office where my mother was the Vice-Principal. This resulted in me doing extra homework that evening instead of watching Dobie Gillis on television.
I was undeterred and my curiosity was undiminished. One day, we were given some strips of magnesium ribbon to conduct experiments on. Don’t ask what the point was because I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. When I went home for lunch, I took a piece of the ribbon with me. I took it out on the apartment balcony, struck a match, and marvelled at how brightly the magnesium burned. Quite hot as well, as I recall. When my mother got home, I told her what I had learned and she told me what I had earned: more homework and less Dobie Gillis.
This now seems quite unfair, especially when compared to the American scientists who searched out a cure for pernicious anemia in 1926. As Siddhartha Mukherjee recounts in The Emperor of All Maladies, American doctor George Minot fed his patients “increasingly macabre concoctions – half a pound of chicken liver, half-cooked hamburgers, raw hog stomach, and even once the regurgitated gastric juices of one of his students (spiced up with butter, lemon and parsley)” and conclusively demonstrated that it was caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency. This discovery led him to the 1934 Nobel Prize.
A couple of years after Minot took up cooking supper for his patients, an English doctor, Lucy Wills, was treating patients in the slums of Bombay, as Mumbai was then known to the English. She found that B12 didn’t work on the pernicious anemia suffered by impoverished women. She found that while the vitamin was of no help, Marmite did the trick.
Had I known, fifty-five years ago, how science was practised ninety years ago, I might have stuck with it. The cancer industry is spending billions of dollars hunting for a cure. If history repeats itself, one day an unsuspecting lab rat will find it while looking in the other direction.