Sunday, June 21, 2009

"The partisans have ampicillin". Really?

The Russian covert antibiotic program must have been hugely successful

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In an effort to stave off the boredom that inevitably accompanies adjustment to a new environment, I was watching the WW2-era movie "Defiance" yesterday. The movie is based on an astounding true story about two Jewish brothers (played by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) who hide and lead a band of Jewish refugees through the forests of Belorussia for two years and thwart the Nazis' plans for their extermination. Surviving on food killed and obtained in the jungle, defending themselves with stolen small firearms and occasionally seeking the help of partisans from the Red Army, the Bielski brothers and their group provide one of the most exemplary stories of resistance against the Nazis during the war.

So far so good, and the movie is not bad at all. But during one scene my ears suddenly perked up. There is a winter epidemic of typhus threatening to wipe out the population. A nurse tells Craig that the disease is spread by lice and without medical attention the patients will certainly die. To prevent this, she says, Craig and his group must borrow ampicillin from the Red Army. "The partisans have ampicillin", she says with hope and concern.

Which is all fine, except that ampicillin was not even known in 1942. It was introduced only in 1961. Even penicillin was a closely guarded secret in 1942. Plus I am not even sure if typhus is properly treated with beta-lactam antibiotics of the penicillin type.

I was further chagrined when in order to confirm this I visited the Wikipedia page on penicillin. While it otherwise looked ok, it also said that the first total synthesis of penicillin was achieved by the legendary chemist Robert Burns Woodward at Harvard. Again, not true. Woodward synthesized cephalosporin. It was John Sheehan from MIT who synthesized penicillin after a mammoth effort of 15 years. The error is now rectified.

Seems the directors of Defiance and the editors of the Wikipedia penicillin page have the same problem of fact-checking.

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3 Comments:

Blogger James said...

I think you have found your true calling--a script researcher for a Hollywood studio!

12:14 PM  
Blogger Wavefunction said...

It all depends on how much it pays James!

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Brent said...

Probably the "Defiance" writers did check their facts -- using Wikipedia.

12:50 PM  

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