by iampunha | 6/19/2008 08:00:00 AM
It all happened because a Russian scientist moved to Germany to study chemistry abroad.

It all happened because his son, a prescient man, recognized the danger of another man coming to power.

It all happened because that prescient man moved to England and started working with a man who had seen too much death in The Great War and wanted to put an end to the bad science and worse infections caused by battlefield wounds.

Because of the work of one Scottish doctor, one German doctor born of a Russian father and one Australian doctor who went to England on a Rhodes scholarship, and because of that last man's scientific interest in an Alexander Fleming paper, we have penicillin.

Baron Florey, the Aussie, will have his day, as will Fleming, but this day is about Ernst Boris Chain, born on this date in 1902, who with Florey and Fleming received the 1945 Nobel Prize in 1945 for research on penicillin.



For the slaves freed today in 1865 in Galveston, Texas.

How many millions of lives have been saved by penicillin?

One the one hand, tens of millions. On the other hand, this one, and many others like it: lives of ordinary people who went on to have kids, and whose kids had kids of their own, and so forth. (One of that woman's kids lived in the town I lived in from 1988 to 1995 full-time and from 1995 to 2005 or so when on break from school.)

Ernst Chain helped save millions of lives. I just wish (and you know he wished) he'd been able to save his mother and sister from a killer no amount of penicillin could have defeated. (If you need a hint, bear in mind that the Chains were Jews and that Ernst's family members don't appear to have physically left Germany before it was too late.)

There is another life he saved, though, that you've never heard about.

In 1994, I was in eighth grade, at a school that went from kindergarten to eighth grade. At that school (private), students customarily gave their teachers Christmas, gifts, and the teachers did the same.

My sisters and brother also attended the school, so anything about a few dollars per teacher got very expensive very quickly. That year, my mother'd come up with the idea of giving $5 in each teacher's name to the Red Cross or Children's Hospital or a similar group.

The gifts were made, to the teachers, in the form of an envelope with something written on a card or piece of paper inside. I was chosen to give the envelope to the headmaster, who to me was one of those larger-than-life figures. (He later played a prominent part in the aftermath of my paternal grandfather's death.)

I had gotten lukewarm reactions from some of the teachers (who after all were working at a school where a healthy number of parents were doctors, lawyers or otherwise wealthy), so I figured the headmaster would have gotten similarly ludicrous gifts from parents trying to bribe him for whatever reason.

Instead, I found that my mother had tappen into a part of him that maybe other parents didn't think of: the child in him.


In the 15 minutes that followed, he was George, not Mr. Schumacher, and we were equals. (Think of those 15 minutes like the precious time here.)

George, all 60-something years of him, told me a story about when he was a child, and very sick.

He was to have penicillin every four to six hours (in retrospect, perhaps because the mechanism for making penicillin stay longer in the body had not yet been secured). His fever, if memory serves, was about 104 degrees, which in many children in the 1940s spelled delirious death.

Because of this hospital, possibly, little George Schumacher grew up to become Mr. Schumacher, a man who would have been an amazing politician, an amazing motivational speaker, an amazing a lot of things, and instead happened in on my life for a very few years, then was gone from it just as quickly.

But before he was gone from it, before I was 483 miles away trying to survive in a place that had a social sickness that penicillin again could not have touched, he eulogized my grandfather.

On a cold, windy Feb. 13, 1995, a Monday, George Schumacher addressed the packed-full St. Mark Catholic Church in Fairfax, Va.

On that cold, windy Feb. 13, George Schumacher stepped to the podium in that church and showed us that the kind and solid voice he used as headmaster for talking at assemblies combined beautifully with the acoustics of a church. He talked about the first time he met my father's parents, some months before he was hired to replace Mrs. Battaglia, who was retiring to the shock and sadness of the entire school.

I remember almost none of what he said after "One spring day a few years ago, my wife and I stepped out of our car and strode along a short stone walkway shaded by a tree on either side and peppered with ivy on the left and an immaculately kept lawn on the right." And even that much is probably half true, half conflated. (I care about the facts, but also about the heart of the man, and I know that walkway from having played on it for 15 years.)

I remember almost none of the rest of what George said that day, and he is no longer around to remind me. But I remember that for the 15 minutes he spoke, I wasn't sad. That stood in stark contrast to most of the last several years of my life and in even starker contrast to the summer of 1995, when I so deeply struggled to remember my grandfather in the months after his death.

I remember the beginning of that speech just as I remember, three days before he spoke friend and entered my heart for the second time (the first was at Christmas), where he was half an hour after I'd found out my grandfather had died. He was in one of the two school administration buildings (where we had found out), talking to my mother and some of our teachers, when I saw him. I hugged him (he was a person at that moment, not the headmaster), and he comforted me in ways literally no other person would have been able to. (My father, after having cared for his father for a year and change, was in no condition to do anything but grieve and deal with the impending onslaught of relatives, and everyone else was either too busy crying or too busy planning.)

I hugged that man like he was my father. (My father is entirely too secure in himself to have been offended, beside which he wasn't there.)

He hugged me, all 18 feet of him (probably about 6-foot-3, but when you are 5-foot-nothing and 70 pounds, anything bigger seems a lot bigger), and stroked my hair and told me it was going to be OK, told me that this day and the next few days would be ridiculously painful, but they would give way to a calmer, less incisive pain, and that while I wouldn't immediately get back nostalgically the man I had known, he would come back, in pieces, when I needed them and when I didn't.

He treated me like one of his children. Whatever bad anyone can say about him (and as I indicate later in this story, he had his flaws), that man had a way with kids. He also had a way with adults.

Later that night, George was in my grandparents' house (not as outlandish as it seems, as the school had been founded by my grandparents, it was yards from their house, and he'd gone to meet them as part of the interview process back five years earlier) with a teacher he'd later attend the memorial service with.

We (my siblings and I) had graciously been allowed the rest of the school day off, so we'd been in and out of that house all day, and I remember relishing getting to come and go as I pleased during the school day, feet away from the place, as my classmates had to wait for the boredom to end. (Yes, school is intensely boring when you already know the material. That's part of why I pick Today in History topics I don't know anything about — and why, when I pick familiar topics, I find a new angle.) And there I was, sitting on a couch feet away from not Mr. Schumacher but George, his human alter ego, and not Mrs. White but Julia, her mild-mannered teacher counterpart.

And there I was included in the talk of the plans for the weekend and the Monday after. (I was not so much consulted as I was invited to be in the room.) The inclusion of that night meant that I knew what was going on. It meant that in a moment of complete uncertainty, and in the shadow of a day that haunted me for months afterward, there was calm, there was control, there was the opportunity to be responsible and an adult and so many things that, given my youth and my appearance (if I shave, I look 16, and this was 13 years ago), simply were not afforded to me.

A year or two after all of this happened, George Schumacher was forced out as headmaster following the (strongly sourced) allegation that he'd been having an affair with a teacher. A year or two later, we heard that he'd died of a heart attack.

Penicillin gave him about 60 years. It gave me, and hundreds of other people, him. And now, close to 10 years later, it gives you him.

As I write this, we are close to 29 years removed from Chain's death, 53 years removed from Alexander Fleming's death, 63 years removed from the end of World War II (where penicillin made its biggest debut).

And you are sitting reading about a man who lived to touch hundreds of lives because of the work of men he never met, men who were interested in the science of an issue more than the humanitarian element.

We are forever fortunate that Florey, Chain and others chose to focus their work on Fleming's paper on Penicillium, which as legend has it grew out of not meticulous research but, first, forgetfulness (page 3 of that PDF) and possibly also Clorito Picado's research.

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