James Gladstone April 2019
Penicillium: the opening:
extreme pharmacology, you extend life and thereby steal death
from the gods ---
Bill Rutland, American journalist and originator of the Planet
Was old man Edwards awake? Or were these flashes in his mind
dreams? November 1945! Flash! Like flash news cameras. War over!
Atom bombs! Demobilization! President Truman already in trouble.
At the very personal level his son Gareth was home and alive. A
new drug called penicillin had saved his life. Progress…
As to his shoulder, there was no doubt he still had
acute pain – nerves bones, everything had been shattered by the
enemy shrapnel – Belgium a terrible winter ago -- and you heard
him nights. Progress? Such pain for a life saving chemical. His
description of the pain of the injections for this penicillin
defied reason. And yet it happened. The chemical saved his life.
The senior doc had said about the woman.
Which woman? Gareth’s voice had trailed off.
His son shrugged and turned away. ‘Not like that,
Dad,’ he said later. ‘The doc said ‘she changed’… Changed what?
‘Changed this chemical?’
Wake, man!. The eastbound train is coming The Baby
Ben alarm clock was clanging and he put his hand out to stop it.
Ed Senior was the stationman at the little high settlement of
Alderson, West Virginia. With war labor shortages he had carried
on working past retirement. He'd stop soon now.
He slept nights on the bench in the stationman’s
hut, set the alarm for each freight, mainly taking coal to fuel
the east, then the night passenger trains, the Cardinal
sleepers -- Sleep Like A Bird, was the slogan, which was
all right if you could afford a berth. The Cardinal ran
in a big U, Chicago, Indianapolis, south into Kentucky, then
east crossing the mountains, linking smaller towns, his stop at
Alderson and then White Sulphur Springs where the late great
President Roosevelt went for the cure and had died, down the
Appalachians into Virginia and then north to Washington with
connections to New York City.
The Edwards had come here from Wales later in the
nineteenth century when most of the good land had gone,
scratched a living, were free of English landlords and built
their own chapels. After a year of grim service in France in the
World War, Ed was promoted to driving the Cardinal and big coal
freights and mixed freights.
Progress. Progress had brought another war and
progress had brought the railroads to a point where they were
struggling for passengers. Progress had produced bigger
highways, more cars, passenger air travel. Ed had liked the
column called – what was it? Technopolitana, questioned
progress. He opened the stove with the asbestos glove and put in
more coal. Bill Rutland's Technopolitana column.
There was a dark side to this Planet
Technopolitiana the fellow Rutland had written, and a light
side. Progress wasn’t all crazy and bad.
Well, he was wrapped up and outside in the dark, the
lights down the platform showing lazily falling snow flakes. It
was dead still and just above freezing, snow just beginning to
settle. Peacetime Christmas soon. With their younger boy. With
their war wounded younger boy. He checked the control box as he
had done many hundred times before. He heard the sound of the
river. If there was a big snow and then a melt, it became silent
as the spate of water ran right over the rocks. Certainly the
forecast was for more snow.
He had his flags with him and tried to be still. He
found it hard. He never forgot the iridescent star shells that
lit up the whole battlefield when he was in France, 1918, nor
the nail biting wait of earlier this year when they found
Gareth's wounds had been surgically operated on -- twelve
operations and then the hard-to-bear injections of this stuff
Now his brain kept seeing the flashes of urgent
newsmen’s cameras. He kept wondering what the post war world
would be like. America on top? Or reverting back into itself
like the 1920s?
Flash! Empires rise. Empires fall. America up.
Progress, science, technology, atom splitting, plastics. You
read about it in LIFE and NOW!
Television…Advertising…Packaged food.. electric refrigerators in
many homes, steak for dinner, steak for breakfast, cars for all.
He hoped Gareth's ideas to start his own electrical contracting
business would work. He hoped to base it on contract work for
Nothing moved. He took his big railway issued watch
from his waistcoat pocket. 5.07. Four to go. Part of progress
was that the federal government had built a prison for women
here, in this mountainous country, provided some jobs as farms
went out of production, part of progress, and gave the little
settlement a nasty reputation. People wouldn’t stay in the hotel
here because it accommodated the families of the gal prisoners.
The idea was to put the errant girls in a rural
setting. They lived in houses called ‘cottages’ and learned
crafts and the like and the place had no fence. Those few who
tried to get away only got so far. This was wild and high
And there was nothing like it, the river, the smells
of the woods, hunting, the sound of hymns bursting from the full
up little chapels.
Then he picked up the first, far-away wail of the
train's siren. This sounded at each of the many small road
crossings up the river valley.
He also saw a green station wagon draw up, the
prison car. Its engine was running, lazy driver wasting
gasoline…. and the snow seemed heavier in its headlights.
They'd be collecting a new intake. Scenes by
about-to-be-incarcerated women happened sometimes, the station
their last free place in the outside. Such scenes upset him. He
took out his fob watch again. The Cardinal would be one
minute, maybe two, late.
Then it was on them, the ten coach eastbound. The
first of two Baldwin engines was on him, vast, black and
marvelous, snow swirling in its searchlight. This train was the
lifeblood of Ed's imagination. Even after all the years of
railroad work he loved the thrill of this sight, movement,
smoke, steam, the silver of pistons, smell of hot oil. The two
black and stainless steel engines were slowing and belching
steam, old cars rattling to a stop. With railway precision, the
conductors opened their doors, lowering their steps. Ed was in
his usual position, midway down the train.
'We've got one,' a voice said to him. He recognized
the man, one of the big Evans family, also Welsh, drove the
green station wagon. Evans was there, swearing which was against
the laws of God and banging his gloved hands together. Running
the engine, wasting gasoline as if it was cold tap water.
'Bloody damn cold, Ed. Say nine inches.' So one more bad and
wretched gal was being taken into federal government custody.
No, not bad. Ed’s wife, Doris Edwards, always said
most of the few women are in jail because of the violence or
sloth of men.
The train was stopped, the two steam engines hissing
as if with relief that this part of the climb over the high
Appalachians was done, passengers getting down, federal marshals
with the wretched gal for custody. Ed helps the trainman take
some parcels, car tires and a heavy piece of what must be farm
equipment, put them onto two four wheel carts, put the tarps
over them, won’t blow in this still air. Deal with the prisoner,
never a nice task and then make sure the carts are properly
covered before they are collected or distributed by truck.
Then he saw her between her guards. They were
waiting to come forward. There were two federal marshals and one
was a woman. And the prisoner was a young woman. They were
leading her towards him. Whew! What had this one been up to? She
was slim, had elegant carriage, no thrust in her walk like
cheap gals. She and her two guards were some way up the train.
She was taller than her guards, must be near six foot.
Five other passengers alighted. The gal was still
coming towards him, led by the guards. She wore a plain
overcoat. It fell without a belt, was good quality. She had a
scarf round her neck and another covering most of her face. Her
hands were manacled in front of her.
Ungloved they looked cold and bare, expressed how
much a captive she was.
Ed Edwards knew the procedure, see the passengers
were all right, then get the train moving again. He had to sign
as independent witness to the transfer.
The alighting passengers dispersed and had no big
baggage. He signaled for the train to go, and directed the
three, young woman and two guards to the awning by the hut where
there was light and he could sign the transfer. Quickly the
train moved on.
'Mr. Edwards?' the girl marshal asked, shivering. Ed
Edwards showed his C and O ID card.
The Fed, the gal had the clip board, also the
prisoner's documentation. This was odd. It was a foreign
passport, British. Nathalie Joanna Armstrong, married.
Ed looked at her.
She had big eyes that looked at him. What was such a
respectable woman doing here? Narcotics? Girl of the night, high
In the lamplight he noticed she had tiny freckles on her nose
and cheeks… Born September 1914, London, England. So…So just
Ed signed in his neat and legible copper plate hand.
He handed the clip board back.
Then the girl who was tall and gaunt and drawn
caught his eye and her small mouth just moved. She smiled at
him. She had a sparrow smile.
Then that rough Evans came forward and took her by
the arm, pushed her forward. She stumbled. Of course, her hands
were manacled in front of her. Evans opened the door of the
station wagon and pushed her in so that she stumbled again,
forward. Ouch! She must have banged her shins on the running
board, unable to control herself with her hands cuffed.
‘OK, Edwards… we’ll get some sleep’. The two federal
marshals would stay the night in the hotel here and go back in
twenty two hours when the west bound train next came in.
‘Espionage act if you want to know. Stealing our secrets.’
driving her had pushed her and she was just quick enough with
her manacled hands that she had fallen forward and managed not
to bruise her shins. She was, for the second time in her life,
in the prison car going up the hill. Too much had gone wrong.
Only six weeks ago she had been in Stockholm where the Nobel
Prize had been given for work on penicillin. She had been meant
to meet with Wessler the man who ran her and with her husband.
Only she had discovered that she had been chased there by the
British who also wished to imprison her, or worse.
She had run,
only to run into the arms of the American law.
In the last part of the actual European war and in the summer
after, she had worked at an American military hospital outside
Paris. There had been a honey coloured stone building on the
edge of the town of Montfort L’Amuray and alongside it those
Type A huts. Even in the prison car in the snow she could see
it, hands manacled. The hospital had been on the edge of the
hardwood French forest and where the hospital ward huts had been
there were redundant ambulances lined up, US army ambulances.
Each had many stories. Gradually the huts had gone and the
patients had gone home, stateside, as they said. She had stayed
on, going through records for the penicillin study.
She said she
could take refuge in the cold, paper records, in which each
wounded man was given a number rather than a name. She was not
sure she could ever take refuge from herself, from the pain and
destruction and mud and blood she had seen. And now! She is
trapped. Yet….among the last patients had been a horribly
injured man whose repair was a combination of surgical miracle
and multiple doses of penicillin. Crusty old General – doc and
general – Mylon Braithwaite had said to this man, with her on
the ward round, ‘this gal saved your live, Edwards.’
one recognized that she was the pivot on which the introduction
of penicillin to American military medicine swung.
you from, Edwards?’ she asked him a couple of days later, before
his discharge. She had worked so much inside penicillin for so
long that it was hard to remember that it was a medical miracle.
Edwards would walk from his bed, go stateside and be an
electrician again. Indeed she was it. She wasn’t very important
in all this. She was important.
Lieutenant,’ Gareth Edwards said, ‘Alderson, West Virginia. Not
got too nice a reputation. Prison for gals there. Bad uns.’
‘It’s on the
railroad, right, goes through the Appalatians? I once was on
didn’t stop,’ he said. ‘My Dad’s on the railroad,’ he said.
‘Used to drive express trains. Now the stationman. Prison for
gals. Not your type Liut!’
were, car stopping at the prison reception. Edwards had to be
In fact it
was too good to be true. He had prison work, a program to help
veterans. She had saved his life, or helped to.
1946, he reciprocated. Nathalie Armstrong disappeared for ever.
Armstrong who would be twenty four tomorrow, on September 28
1938 sat cross legged on a hard chair, pondering.
She liked to
think she could think her way our of most things, or into them.
Or when into them, out of them. She was wearing stockings which
were new and American nylon and a short slip instead of a
brassiere. She should be getting dressed and doing her hair,
although it was short and did not take much doing.
him. Brushing it across, she thought, made her long face less
seated chair she sat in, not smoking, not doing anything but
thinking, tapping her head and nodding, was in the sparse but
comfortable guest room for servants in the house of Belinda and
Bernard Lowenstein in Highgate Village in the very north of
London. The Lowensteins had been her patrons. Belinda who was
born American and the daughter of a diplomatic family in Paris
who hid their Jewish origins to work for the US government had
come to Cambridge university, virtually as a child, aged
sixteen, graduated top in mathematics, been unable to work in
math because of being a girl, declared Jewish faith, broke with
her family and married Bernard who was head of the London branch
of the sprawling Lowenstein bank.
devoted her life to helping girls get into science and Nathalie
was a beneficiary. Now she had graduated from Cambridge
university herself. On top of that she had completed the work
for a doctorate in the new subject of biochemistry. Girls did
not get the actual degree. Anyway, biochemistry.
going to change the world, she added when she said the word
‘biochemistry’, added not in parentheses ( ) or as a footnote 1,
as a headline. BIOCHEMISTRY IS CHANGING THE WORLD.
And you will
be part of it.
might not be any longer true.
had gone badly wrong.
across her summer bronzed shoulders and arms, light from the
small window. She liked the freckles on her skin and face, as if
God scattered them as a small bonus. It had rained hard and the
light was now pale. Her slip was rayon and just off white, had
vertical pleats running up it. The tiny freckles became more
pronounced in summer. It was September now, September 27, 1938.
The rest of the simply furnished room was, in contrast to the
shaft of light, dark.
She did not
move except clenching her fists, her face and shoulders, that is
she did not stand or even smoke a cigarette. She just sat
knowing she should be dressed fully. She thought. Then she held
the left ankle crossed on her right thigh in her two hands.
Sprawling at desks or pulling on her hair or limbs helped her
think. She said that, without physiological proof. It could be:
tension helps, she thought. It was almost sure that walking
pushed blood to the brain. Why not this tightening?
The idea of
hormonal control of the body’s functions was at the heart of
what she was about. She knew the chemistry of ‘butterflies’, of
adrenaline, who discovered it, its formula and when it had been
synthesized. Her PhD had been to do with the chemical mechanism
by which an enzyme on the snake bite transmitted to an enzyme
controlling the rhythm of breathing in the victim – well, shut
it down. This exact tracing of chemical cause and effect had not
been hers. She had done some important tests on the molecules
concerned. She had worked under the émigré biochemist, Ernst
Chain who had been shut out of his Berlin lab in 1933, found
refuge if not security in the UK, worked at Cambridge, now was
at Oxford, and wanted her to work with him on the potential of
the mould Penicillium Notatum.
you pass up such an opportunity? A good question with a bad
undertoe. Because you could not. Did not make sense. She was
going to. Or not to.
the ankle. It was OK. Or, it was going to be OK.
help with the Lowensteins in catching up to get into Cambridge –
she was a war orphan and had been educated in a grammar school
in south London…having had that help, she had become somewhat of
a Lowenstein confidante, at least to Bernard, and a family
friend. In the summer months they gave receptions and chamber
music concerts, usually accompanied by dinners in a marquee that
extended their already large musical room. There were the menus,
wines and there were guest lists, seating arrangements, flowers,
Kosher meals, tent to hire, caterer’s staff, needing to keep
them apart from the Bernstein’s terrifying cook, Mrs. Segal,
printed invitations, Mrs. B who looked like a swan gliding in
toga like coats, had a temper like a sea squall… Nathalie came
in as a secretary.
She was tall
and slim and intensely pretty. She knew that. Ever since she
could remember when she was four or five, when she came into
rooms, people looked. It was an asset and it was a problem and
her goal was to steer to being effective professionally, find a
way past the open doors that invited females of the late 1930s
to be silly, domesticated or bluestocking in a sterile way.
sensible, good looking working woman was a true rarity – not
unknown, far from common.
Belinda Bernstein had wanted to be a professional mathematician
and because he, Bernard who was handsome in a dashing and dark
way… because he suffered from rejection from his obese wife’s
bed since the birth of their two boys, Nathalie had become his
That is why
it is going to be OK, tonight. Just go on thinking.
For a start, she was OK
in this house. Because she was well presented as a person, she
acted, during the events as a go-between, moved among the guests
yet was there as a servant to troubleshoot and organize.
there was to be such a reception.
was different. Normally she wore a black dress that was a simple
shirtwaist of glazed cotton. She could look the servant and mix
with guests. The black signaled that she was there to
facilitate. The men all wore black. None of the women unless
they were in mourning, certainly not in this busty, sheeny late
1930s period. Nor these women who, Bernard, who laughed with her
said were ‘well heeled’ – the point of the guests was to raise
money. Well-arsed, she whispered to herself.
a lot. And she liked to think she laughed at herself, or could
do so. Her mother who was Swiss was overtly grave and hurt by
life, and so were almost all women scientists, all of the few.
Nathalie had two things. She made funny faces, no three – she
imitated people and lecturers well and she was taller than most
of the men. She was especially tall like her father who had died
horribly at the end of the Great War. She had picked up the
nickname ‘moorhen’. She was half an inch from six foot and she
said, in the way she had of self-deprecating she would teach
girls science, wear ugly hats and call herself Miss Beanpole.
‘Moorhen’ was the one that caught because it was not what she
was. And yet, it was.
being tall, and fair, moorhens, members of the rail family, were
short and squat and they pecked around in dark places. Well, she
did peck around in dark places, although she was not short, dark
or squat. Information was life. Thinking and making connections.
Making sense of gossip and discarded ideas. Scientists could be
pompous and fashion counted for a lot in a world said to
objective. Peck around. Turn over the discarded.
part of the joke was that Moorhen was the species name. There
was no Moorcock, just Mr. Moorhen. The girl was on top.
girl on top? Three months ago she had married. She had been,
daringly and dangerously for both of them, his lover for a year
before that. It had started when she seduced him. She was twenty
two and he was a professor of history at Oxford university and
an author of travel memoirs and he had been forty six. She had
thought of it first as an adventure. She found out, from nosing
around in Belinda Bernstein’s private papers, about a woman
doctor who would ‘fix up’ young women. Even if not married.
seduced David Armstrong, she had been a celibate. Something had
happened to her with a man when she was seventeen.
knew. Bernard had the secret pictures of her. Conversely she
knew and had taken money to the woman he made love to in
Golder’s Green, across north London. Bernard Lowenstein was
fifty five and she now twenty four. They meshed in these
confidences and a sense you could find a way round marital
what she, so soon, had. THE MAN, the unbearably nice and
supporting and beautiful man, had another woman. Only don’t say
it is awful. Say it has happened. Say you don’t want to have
children yet – the British Prime Minister has today come back
from Munich saying there will be peace with Hitler – this while
The Times shows pictures of air raid shelters being built
in a London park, soldiers at an anti-aircraft battery, news the
Navy is on full alert. Peace indeed.
to the right wing of the Tory party who would not mind a more
If she puts
her left toe in her mouth, then she can really think. Bite on
it. Life is about finding truth, yet life is also about managing
half truth, which you could call lies. She does not want to work
with Ernst Chain on Penicillium – getting the extract known as
‘penicillin’ has gone nowhere in ten years since Dr. Fleming
discovered it. Doctors Raistrick and Clutterbuck worked on it
for a time in London University, one an expert on moulds, the
other a biochemist. Nothing. And the ‘job’ she has been offered
in the Dunn Lab in Oxford with Chain is not a position, just an
offer to use his lab space and help, unpaid. His proper
assistant, paid and contracted, is a man. This offer is a slight
to her. There is another thing: while you have to be good to be
selected for a PhD, let alone get one, as with playing the
violin, you can be very good indeed and still not have that
extra flair that makes you soloist material. Same with
biochemistry, imagining complex molecules needs a level of math
and a level of hunch she lacks.
thought herself out of Oxford, or part time out.
died at the end of the Great War, having fought all through it.
She has been told by Professor Sir Gowland Hopkins, like Bernard
an older man she does not threaten yet amuses and does
indefatigable work for on his archive, told she can make
connections others don’t see, not at the atomic level, at the
ideas level. Relations with B L, Bernard Lowenstein, are such
you don’t need to tell him that much. Say, in memory of your
father’s war service, you would like to find work in London, to
do with a government lab, secretarial or research, three days
and two night a week. The man can have the revolting rich Mrs.
Pillains with her flat chest three days a week. And you will be
It is not
what you intended, moorhen. Then nor have other things been. B L
says there might be gossip: you have only been married three
months. Then you have made that face at him which involves
shaking your head from side to side like a sort of dance and
smiling. ‘You are impossible, Mrs. Armstrong.’
Now he says
a man wants to look at her. Like a filly at a horse auction?
‘Dress your best and bring your husband.’
So it is to
be. Don’t ask questions. And THE MAN who understands so much
about her and whose tight friend she is in spite of their age
gap…the man has red fabric, a satin with a slight sheen. ‘Don’t
dress up. Just do it.’ She does not normally wear red, and he
has taught her that the more muted her colors the more effective
she looks. Not ‘pretty’ – effective. The red dress, a
version of the black dress, simple shirtwaist is there on the