Sabine is Wrong Again: Capitalism Would’ve Killed Penicillin

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A few weeks ago, several of you let me know that there had been yet another great disturbance in the online science communication force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out “what the fuck are you talking about, please stop.” Once again, the person responsible is the popular physicist YouTuber Sabine Hossenfelder.

I covered Hossenfelder once before, back in May when she made a horribly flawed video about transgender care. I was a subscriber of hers at the time and I found her generally educational and entertaining when talking about physics, and I was shocked to see her produce a video that was so poorly researched.

Since then, I’ve learned enough about her that I am not shocked that she’s gone and done it again. This time, her target is capitalism, and how it’s good actually?

Frequent watchers of this channel may already suspect that I am not the world’s biggest fan of capitalism. Have I benefited from it? Absolutely. Do I think that it has led to all of society’s greatest ills, including but not limited to income inequality and runaway climate change? Yep!

So I can see why many people thought, “Oh, Rebecca’s absolutely going to want to take apart this new Sabine pro-capitalism video.”

But here’s the thing: I watched her video, and I thought it was once again very poorly researched, but I just do not have the economics knowledge to properly deconstruct what seemed like dozens of mistakes, misrepresentations, and “but that’s another story” hand-waving. I’m not an economist, obviously, but I also have never taken a college class on the subject, and I haven’t read in depth on a variety of economic topics–I’m just not educated enough on the topic to be able to rebut or explain specific points to others. So I decided to give it a skip.

But last week, the YouTube algorithm actually blessed me with a bit of gold, in the form of a channel called Unlearning Economics. The creator is an academic economist from the UK, and I think he does a very good job of reacting to Hossenfelder’s video in real time on a livestream. I learned a lot watching it, and if you want to know what Hossenfelder got wrong or just skipped entirely, please go check out his video. As always, links to everything I discuss are in the transcript linked below, available free to everyone on my Patreon.

But there was one point in Unlearning Economics’ livestream in which he wasn’t sure how to respond because the topic wasn’t in his wheelhouse: the production of penicillin.

Hossenfelder argues that capitalism was the driver behind scientific progress and illustrates it with the story of penicillin. “But (Fleming) pretty much left it at naming the stuff (penicillin). It wasn’t until ten years later that a group at the University of Oxford set out to find a way to grow the fungus and extract the penicillin in large quantities. They then conducted medical trials and once they were sure pen was both safe and effective, their method was scaled up by the pharmaceutical industry. To members of the oxford group later shared the Nobel prize with fleming. So what saved all those many lives wasn’t just Fleming’s observation in a petri dish. The game changer was producing the stuff in large quantities and bringing it where it was needed. Innovation and industrialization ultimately going back to capitalism. That’s what saved all those people.”

Here’s what Unlearning Economics had to say about that: essentially he’s a little (understandably) confused about what her point is, and how it supports her thesis that capitalism is good. Now THIS is more science history than economics and I actually DO feel like I have the knowledge and ability to explain what her point was supposed to be and ALSO why she’s completely wrong.

Hossenfelder starts this part of her video by downplaying Fleming’s role in the discovery, development, and production of penicillin, which IS something that I would have done in an essay for my 9th grade biology class, when I was 13 and thought it was cool to “debunk” history.

There was a period of time when one could argue that Fleming took more of the spotlight than he deserved, just as you could argue the same for literally ANY famous scientific advancement of the past 100 years. Yes, of COURSE prior research had shown that fungi and bacteria killed one another. Hossenfelder starts in 1871 with John Scott Burdon-Sanderson, but ancient cultures around the world used fungi to stop infections a thousand years prior. The difference is that with time and effort, scientists were able to get more and more specific as to what fungi worked, then what illnesses it could and could not help with, then what actual substance in the fungi was doing the job, and so on and so on. 

So yes, Hossenfelder is correct that Fleming discovered the substance, but he didn’t just “leave it at naming it.” He was not a chemist, so unlike Hossenfelder he acknowledged his lack of education on the subject and found some people in the correct department to try to get things right. Unfortunately, the chemists he recruited were unable to isolate the chemical compound, so with nowhere else to go Fleming published his paper in the hopes that someone would pick it up in the future.

Luckily, that is exactly what happened. As Hossenfelder correctly states, ten years later a chemist at the University of Oxford, Ernst Chain found Fleming’s paper and used an interdisciplinary team of researchers to explore the idea of penicillin’s antibacterial properties. They discovered that it was extremely effective at killing certain bacteria that infect and kill people, and so they quickly realized they needed to find a way to produce this substance in large enough quantities to save millions of lives.

I’ll pause here to stress that Hossenfelder uses this story to argue that “capitalism” is “why science took off.” Thus far in the way that both I and Hossenfelder describe it, capitalism has played no real part in the story: Fleming was a scientist instead of working in a shipping office because his uncle died and left him enough money to go to medical school. The University of Oxford predates capitalism. Ernst Chain and company were not working for a for-profit pharmaceutical company.

But in actuality, this is actually the story of how a purer capitalist society would have prevented the discovery of penicilin. In 1972 Ernst Chain published a remembrance of his time at Oxford, writing: 

“That penicillin could have practical use in clinical medicine did not enter our minds when we started our work on it. A substance of the degree of instability that penicillin seemed to possess according to the published facts does not hold out much promise for clinical application. If my working hypothesis had been correct and penicillin had been a protein, its practical use as a chemotherapeutic agent would have been out of the question because of anaphylactic phenomena that inevitably would have followed its repeated use. From the scientific point of view, however, the problem of purifying penicillin and isolating the substrate on which I thought it acted was of interest and, hence, well worth pursuing.”

He goes on to say “I started to work on penicillin in 1938, long before the outbreak of the war.

The frequently repeated statement that the work was started as a contribution to the war effort, to find a chemotherapeutic agent suitable for the treatment of infected war wounds, has no basis. The only reason that motivated me was scientific interest. I very much doubt whether I would have been allowed to study this problem at that time in one of the so-called ‘mission oriented’ practically minded industrial laboratories. The research on penicillin, which was started as a problem of purely scientific interest but had consequences of very great practical importance, is a good example of how difficult it is to demarcate sharp limits between pure and applied research.”

That’s right, the GUY WHO IS MOST RESPONSIBLE for the development and production of penicillin during World War 2 directly contradicts Hossenfelder, making it very clear that his team’s hypothesis was that there was NO practical medical use for this substance and therefore of NO interest to a capitalist for buying or selling. They investigated it for purely scientific interest. Pure curiosity. If they were working for a pharmaceutical company, their research would have ended before it even started because there simply is no reason for a company looking to turn a profit to spend time and money exploring unprofitable ideas. Period, end of story. 

Okay, that’s actually NOT the end of the story, because now we get to the part that I think is Hossenfelder’s main argument for “capitalism good” (though nothing she says supports her weird statement that capitalism leads to scientific progress). But the pharmaceutical industry IS part of the reason why Chain’s scientific progress was able to be mass produced in the United States and the United Kingdom. At first, creating more penicillin was WILDLY inefficient and required the team to gather every container they could, from coffee mugs to bedpans, in order to “farm” the substance. In fact, six women ran Oxford’s “farm,” and they came to be known as the Penicillin Girls.

But every bit of substance they collected wasn’t even enough to prevent their first human patient from eventually dying of his infection. They needed A LOT more, but the British government wasn’t convinced that it was worth investing in the necessary equipment when their industry was now fully focused on the ongoing war effort. So, the nonprofit Rockefeller Foundation gave the researchers funding to fly to America and plead with the pharmaceutical companies there.

From Hossenfelder’s video (6:50), you may get the impression that the pharmaceutical companies rose to the challenge and saved millions of lives. But that’s not what happened: the pharmaceutical companies weren’t convinced it was worth their time. Luckily, one Oxford researcher, Howard Florey, was old friends with Alfred Newton Richards, who was chair of the Committee on Medical Research at the US government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was specifically set up to direct funding towards research that could aid in the war effort. Richards WAS convinced, and so he lobbied the heads of the pharmaceutical companies hard, telling them that not only was this their patriotic duty but that they would be rewarded with tax breaks and federal funding.

Pearl Harbor was bombed in the coming weeks, leading the US military to start demanding vast quantities of penicillin as plans began for D-Day. That, combined with further scientific research suggesting easier ways of manufacturing penicillin, finally convinced the pharmaceutical companies to get to work. They streamlined the process and were soon producing the necessary amounts to save millions of lives.

As you can see, the real story is a bit more complicated than “capitalists stepped in to produce medicine that scientists could not otherwise produce.” At every step, capitalists had to be sidestepped or cajoled into helping.

But still, you might argue that were it not for the capitalist pharmaceutical companies, regardless of how hard it was to convince them to participate, the US and UK would never have been able to produce the amount of penicillin they needed. Therefore, capitalism MUST be good for something, right? How might history have changed if capitalism had never come into being?

Usually, that’s a place where I would have to throw my hands in the air and say “Sorry, I’m not an economist and I do not know what the world would look like without capitalism, or what exactly a less destructive system would look like, so I cannot answer that question.” But it turns out I CAN answer that question, sort of, thanks to Australia.

Despite me mentioning them for the first time just now, Australia played a very important role in the history of penicillin. That Oxford researcher I mentioned, Howard Florey? The guy who used the power of friendship to convince the pharmaceutical industry to step up? He was Australian, and he did so much work that he was the third guy to share the Nobel Prize with Fleming and Chain. 

But Australia played another role in the story: like the US and the UK, they also had soldiers in the war and they also needed a large amount of penicillin, but they didn’t have a strong private pharmaceutical industry to ask for help. What they had was Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, a government body founded in 1916. Over the years, they were responsible for producing insulin for Australian diabetics as well as for developing vaccines for tetanus, whooping cough, polio, and many other diseases. And so in 1943 the Australian government authorized the funds necessary to build their own production facility to produce penicillin, quickly ramping up to make enough for their entire military as well as an extra supply for civilians.

Canada also financed its own production facility–Howard Florey visited authorities there to argue for its necessity, but they weren’t convinced until they saw ongoing clinical trial results. At that point, the Canadian government spent the equivalent of about $20 million today to buy and refurbish a building at University of Toronto and begin mass producing the wonder drug.

Obviously capitalism is still present in these stories, because these are capitalist societies. Even the decisions made by governments are impacted by capitalism and money–in that same recollection I mentioned earlier, Ernst Chain wrote about the difficulty of continuing to find new antibiotics in the 1950s and ‘60s, saying that it became a collective effort amongst many individual organizations and companies that spread out their risk, and that a single government would never have taken on such an effort. “One could not imagine the civil servant who would have had the courage to spend such very large sums of money on a project that could not be guaranteed to be successful,” he wrote.
But while it’s hard to say how our world would look without capitalism, I hope that understanding this history in a more nuanced way helps you envision a world where scientific progress is valued in and of itself and where the application of that science into technology that makes our lives better is controlled by the people, and not by a handful of impossibly wealthy and influential billionaires focused only on getting wealthier and growing their businesses to the point where they are able to, say, prevent half the world from accessing life-saving vaccines developed with public money. Just to name a random example.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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