Poster on the wall of a fermentation plant producing penicillin for the military. Credit: National Archives, College Park, Maryland, 1944.

By Catherine Revland

The final article in the series “You Must Remember This,” about World War II and its relevance to our time.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, and although I was only four years old at the time I can still recall the church bells, shouts of joy, and wild embracing. But my most vivid wartime memory is worried grown-ups huddled around the radio, listening intently to a voice my GI father would later mimic to perfection: “I hate wahr. Eleanoah hates wahr. Even our dog Fala hates wahr.”

Although my family voted Republican, they loved President Roosevelt so much they hung his photo on the wall. They loved his dignity and his sense of humor, but most of all they loved him because he was for working people. “He always had our backs, and it wasn’t just talk,” they said. “His humanity showed through everything he did.”

Miracle Drug

A month after the attack on Pearl Harbor FDR visited a military hospital in Hawaii where he asked to be wheeled through the amputee ward. “He smiled and waved,” recalled a biographer. “He said nothing. His presence said everything.” Upon his return, with the plight of limbless soldiers still fresh in his mind, the president ordered the Office of Scientific Research and Development to give high priority to a little-known but promising bacteria-killing drug called penicillin, invented by a British mycologist, which had yet to be tested. If it could be mass-produced it would meet a desperate wartime need, as soldiers were more likely to die from infection than from their wounds.

When Department of Agriculture mycologists tested the first batch of the drug they had received from Britain they were astonished by its effectiveness, but the mold culture was unstable. A new strain had to be identified and refined before penicillin could be mass-produced; and that was a big problem, difficult to resolve. The president immediately launched a massive, government-sponsored medical Manhattan Project of staggering complexity that required the coordination of every relevant federal agency, the military, academics, 21 private manufacturers including seven major pharmaceutical companies, and offers of a free exchange of information to Allied scientists around the world.

Within the year a highly potent strain of penicillin was found and refined. Clinical trials began in 1943, and the results were “practically unbelievable.” By 1944 the coalition had produced 300 billion units of the drug, enough sterile packets to pack in every soldier’s gear on D-Day. In 1945 penicillin was marketed to the world. Ten years later the government employed the penicillin template to mass-produce the polio vaccine, all but eradicating the virus within two years.

The cost of the war’s greatest medical achievement was $10 million, the equivalent of $2.6 billion today—a bargain. The burning question is, why can’t this be done again, during the worst global emergency since World War II? The current president has an answer for that: “The federal government shouldn’t be forced to go and do everything.”

Humanity Wins

What do you do when you’re governed by the worst possible people at the worst possible time? I don’t know, but watching these folks on TV sucks me into a black hole of despair. Instead, I’m learning to love the explosion of empathy and heroism that doesn’t make the news but is happening all around: the hospital workers who play “Here Comes the Sun” on the PA system every time a discharged COVID patient walks out the door; the Asian group that donated funds and services to medical workers during a spike of hate crimes fomented by the president; the neighbor who brought roses to the cashiers at D’Agostino; the masked patriots on the Village streets who wave while keeping their six-foot distance; dancers dancing at home (#Restezchezvous), so beautiful they make me cry.

Lest I forget, I love all the New Yorkers who flattened the curve by staying home, but there’s so much more to this story than sitting on the couch watching Netflix. It’s about how scary it is to be at war with an invisible enemy when the line between citizens and soldiers doesn’t exist, and the courage it takes to meet the enemy armed with a bottle of Purell and a homemade mask. Will the virus find me today? What if I die alone? In the times we live in right now, with death all around, every day is our finest hour. Stay home. Stay strong. Look for the love. Fight on.

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