Richard Gordon


First Published in 1977

Author's Note

Who discovered penicillin? Fleming or Florey? Would either have seen its possibilities, had not the sulpha drugs come from Nazi Germany? And who was the sulpha drugs' begetter? Gerhard Domagk, awarded the Nobel Prize? Or an unknown German professor, at the same time on trial for his life at Nьrnberg for complicity with Hitler's SS?

My research in London, Oxford and Wuppertal gave fresh knowledge about the discoverers of these drugs, which have benefited almost everyone alive today. This is a novel, but its historical and medical facts stay close to the truth. The scientists Colebrook, Wright, Hopkins, Freeman, Raistrick and Hцrlein all lived. Chain, Fletcher and Heatley happily still do.

A note about microbes. The sulpha drugs and penicillin kill the dangerous germ streptococcus in the body. The equally deadly staphylococcus is killed by penicillin, but not by the sulpha drugs.


You could see the whole of Wuppertal from the Schwebebahn. That was the famous overhead railway, its green-painted girders bestriding ten miles of the River Wupper like an angular centipede. Its neat red-and-white aerial tramcars, suspended from their monorail, gave the entrancing feeling of floating in the gondola of a low-flying Zeppelin. The first ride had been taken on October 24, 1900 by Kaiser Wilhelm II, wearing his field-grey military cape and spiked helmet. The only accident in its history, as everyone in Wuppertal told you sooner or later, was a baby elephant involved in a circus stunt falling through the floor into the water.

Wuppertal was a snake of a town, twisting along a steep wooded valley in places barely quarter of a mile across, lined with narrow slate-roofed tenement houses rising on each other's shoulders. Its headlong outdoor staircases suggested Old Edinburgh, the abuttal everywhere of man's ugliness on Nature's beauty reminded me of the mining towns in South Wales where I had gone bicycling during the Cambridge vacations. The river banks were settled by weavers in the eighteenth century, their linen yarn covering the green fields like snow, and its only event to impinge on the outside world was the birth there in 1820 of Friedrich Engels. Wuppertal was synthetic, like the compounds which I created from elements in my chemist's test-tubes. It had been formed from six Rhineland towns breathing the same acrid air-Elberfeld, Barmen, Cronenberg, Ronsdorf, Beyenburg and Vohwinkel-like Arnold Bennett's Potteries. That was three years before my arrival. I came to work there on January 1, 1933, a perfectly ridiculous moment for a particle of the British Empire to settle on the feverish face of Germany.

In Elberfeld-everyone of course still used the old names-which formed the north-west corner of Wuppertal, the Schwebebahn bisected the factory of I. G Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschaft, the huge chemical combine which made dyes and anything else profitable to come out of a test-tube. It was a vast, straggling disarray of red-brick buildings the size of warehouses and long wooden sheds, the river a squalid ditch canalized by the factory walls, rain-bowed with oil and overhung with a web of cables and pipes, smoke pouring from a dozen tall brick chimneys and steam escaping from myriad valves. The conscience of the world had not yet stepped so inconveniently between a manufacturer and the cheap disposal of his waste. I worked at the far side of Wuppertal in the old district of Barmen, but that morning I had an appointment at I G Farben. The Schwebebahn was crowded. It was eight-thirty on the last Saturday of January, in an age when men got up six days a week for work-if they could find it. From the factory station, a floorless shed suspended in mid-air, I retraced my route to the gates off the main road leading west towards Dusseldorf. It was a bitter day, the grey sky threatening imminent reinforcement for the black-speckled, iron-hard snow swept into gutters and corners.

I was directed across a triangular yard cut by railway tracks, where a gang of workmen in leather aprons and shiny-peaked caps were loading a dray with carboys of chemicals in straw nests, every man's breath a cloud, the four horses pawing the icy cobbles and smoking like dragons. As I crossed the river by a footbridge of railway sleepers I caught the familiar smell of phenol. All Wuppertal stank. Any town making its living from chemicals in those days suffered its nose to be corroded. The factory was the pharmaceutical division of I G Farben, the works strung along the river in the 1880s by the old Bayer drug company, which still gave its name to the medicaments. From phenol, the Germans were making aspirin to soothe the headaches of the world.

The six-storey research block was modern, a cleanly contrast to the industrial jungle. I was making for the pathology department on the fourth floor, where I found a door to the left of the short corridor ajar, and walked in. I discovered myself in an amazingly luxurious laboratory. It was light and airy on the corner of the building, with white-tiled walls, white desks and swivel chairs, a telephone, even a refrigerator. The bench was separated from a huge window by a shelf of plants in pots, the elaborate microscope was far beyond the pocket of the Sir William Dunn Laboratories at Cambridge, which I had just quit. Its only occupant was a girl in a white coat, busy over conical flasks with cotton-wool stoppers. She was pretty, round faced and dark-haired, her eyes murmuring a hint of the Slav.

'Yes? What do you want?' she asked sharply.

I must have appeared a freak. At Cambridge I had learned, like Michael Arlen's Gerald, to despise the genteel habit of wearing an overcoat, whether it blew, rained, snowed or froze. My twenty-two-year-old frame was hung with grey flannel 'bags' and a brown Harris tweed jacket, a long knitted blue-red-and-gold Trinity College scarf tucked into the lapels. My fair hair was disarrayed. I was red-nosed and raw-handed. One fist carried a brown cardboard attachй case from Woolworth's, which contained principally rye bread and sliced sausage for my lunch, the other clasped a flapping umbrella. God knows why I perpetrated the image of a typical Cambridge undergraduate going about his business in an obscure Rhineland industrial town. Perhaps it was patriotic bravado, or insularity, or 'bohemianism'. Or perhaps I couldn't afford a change of clothes.

'I have an appointment this morning to see Professor Dr Domagk,' I replied in German.

'I'm sorry, mein Herr, but it is strictly forbidden to enter the laboratories.'

My English accent made her more agitated, and I thought prettier. At that age I had a pressing interest in women. (Perhaps it persisted. I have had more wives than usually allowed a Professor of Biochemistry.)

_'Streng verboten,'_ she repeated, torn between duty and courtesy. In the Europe of those days, even neighbouring foreigners enjoyed the rarity and mystery of Turks to the Elizabethans. 'Please wait outside.'

This was strange. The Dunn Labs were as open to visitors as Cambridge railway station, and far more convenient than those famously remote platforms. I was about to comply when a door in the far corner opened to admit two men in white linen lab coats.

The first struck me as a younger copy of the Republic's President, Field-Marshal von Hindenburg. He was fiftyish, square-built, bull-necked, bushy eyebrowed, his hair iron grey, his moustache close-clipped, wearing circular horn-rimmed glasses (but everyone's glasses were circular then). The other's lab coat was too long in the sleeves, unbuttoned to display brown trousers badly in need of a press. I recognized him at once from my German host's description as Professor Gerhard Domagk.

'Quite obviously, you are Herr Elgar,' said Domagk in German, taking in my appearance.

Domagk was in his late thirties, tall and spare, with thinning dark hair cropped so close that the sides of his head appeared shaven. He had a neat triangle of clipped moustache and a pin through his soft white collar under the knot of his tie, American style. The little I knew of him suggested that he might begrudge spending even the small change of his time on me. He was a bacteriologist, a doctor specializing in germs, a study initiated by the Germans themselves in the 1870s. He held the title of Professor from the University of Munster-the nation which makes much of such labels has the pleasant custom of applying them without the accompanying trials of office. He

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