Penicillin Comes Of Age In 'A Fierce Radiance' It's hard to imagine that people used to die from things as small as a scratch on the knee — but that's what life was like before penicillin. Author Lauren Belfer's new novel, A Fierce Radiance, follows the intrigue as pharmaceutical companies race to mass-produce lifesaving drugs during World War II.
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Penicillin Comes Of Age In 'A Fierce Radiance'

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Penicillin Comes Of Age In 'A Fierce Radiance'

Penicillin Comes Of Age In 'A Fierce Radiance'

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LYNN NEARY, Host:

Lauren Belfer joins us now to discuss her book. Thanks so much for being with us, Lauren.

LAUREN BELFER: 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?

BELFER: 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?

BELFER: 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?

BELFER: 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.

BELFER: 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, thanks so much. It was good talking with you.

BELFER: Thank you, Lynn, wonderful to talk to you.

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