LYNN NEARY, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
In this day and age, it's hard to imagine a time when a simple scrape could turn deadly. The flu killed thousands and pneumonia wasn't just fatal for the elderly.
Lauren Belfer brings us back to this time in her new book, "A Fierce Radiance." This historical novel, which is also part mystery and part romance, is set in the early years of World War II, when the medical community and the military were in a race against time to develop penicillin.
Belfer also draws us into the greed and intrigue that surrounded the development of a new breed of drugs that would not only save millions of lives but would also be worth millions of dollars.
Lauren Belfer joins us now to discuss her book. Thanks so much for being with us, Lauren.
Ms. LAUREN BELFER (Author, "A Fierce Radiance"): Great to be here, Lynn.
NEARY: Now, I understand that you had a really personal reason for looking into this history of penicillin. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Ms. BELFER: Yes. For me, "A Fierce Radiance" is a family story. For all the years that I knew her, my elderly aunt kept on her bureau a photograph of her brother when he was about 10 years old sitting in a canoe with his father, you know, having a wonderful time on a summer vacation.
He was dead a year later. He died on the Fourth of July in the 1920s of a fast-moving infection, and there was nothing his doctors could do to save him.
NEARY: You know, I have to say I really had not thought much about the kinds of simple things that could turn deadly before the development of penicillin and the other antibiotics, as you describe in this book. How much did you know about it, other than your own personal experience in the stories you heard, before you really started your research on this?
Ms. BELFER: Well, I knew nothing about it, and I should go back a little bit. Many people, when they think of penicillin, think, oh, Alexander Fleming, 1928. But the fact is that Alexander Fleming couldn't do anything with the penicillin that he discovered. The technology didn't exist.
Penicillin was virtually forgotten until the beginning of the Second World War when scientists were trying to find substances that could help battlefield wounds. And what they found was that the mold, the penicillium mold, grew best in a flat surface, and they just didn't have the technology to create huge flat surfaces.
So they used what was at hand. They had milk bottles. They had bedpans; that's what they used. And the great challenge of the war was to find a way to mass-produce penicillin because clearly, if you're just harvesting it drop by drop from a milk bottle, you're not going to be able to supply, say, the entire United States military with penicillin. But by D-Day, 1944, that's exactly what American industry had done.
NEARY: Now, at the same time, penicillin was the military's focus, but as your book makes clear, and again, it's fiction, but according to your book, at the same time, there were what you call penicillin's cousins being developed, and these this is what the pharmaceutical companies were really interested in because that's where the profit was. Why is that?
Ms. BELFER: Well, because penicillin was considered, quote, unquote, "a weapon of war," that's what they called it, the United States government took over the production, and penicillin was made under the supervision of the same group that was supervising the Manhattan Project for the atomic bomb.
And because the government controlled the production, the government took the patents. But there were patents to be made available for the other antibiotics. This became what is now a billion-dollar industry. It did not exist in 1940.
NEARY: Now, Claire Shipley, who is the heroine of this novel, is a photographer for Life magazine and this really sort of was very evocative of a certain time in this country's history when a magazine like Life had so much influence on the culture.
Ms. BELFER: Yes. Life began in 1936 and was an overnight sensation. When I began research for the novel, I read every issue of Life magazine from 1939, when the war began in Europe, to 1945. And I made some astonishing discoveries doing that.
What I tried to do when I wrote the book was to put myself in the shoes of people living those years out. So as I read Life magazine, I realized that Americans expected that their cities would be bombed.
Life magazine gave people advice on what to do in bombing raids. I remember an article about what to do with your pets during bombing raids because pets weren't allowed in the shelters. I mean, I thought I knew a lot about World War II, but these kinds of things, I mean, that really brought the war home to me.
NEARY: Lauren Belfer, her new novel is "A Fierce Radiance."
Lauren, thanks so much. It was good talking with you.
Ms. BELFER: Thank you, Lynn, wonderful to talk to you.