Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dal Medical Library is my best friend

If we see a fly-on-the-wall documentary regarding the thirty six hour visit of a major European president to President Clinton ; a documentary film in which we see Clinton charm the visiting VIP publicly but then privately tells his aides, "Oh God, he just never stopped talking !!", we are likely to feel we have gotten an accurate account of the visit, based on what we already know about the public and private Clinton.

But we can't really imagine an equally successful historical documentary about FDR's conduct of WWII  --- for several important reasons.

Firstly, the cinema-verite technology did not exist in WWII. Secondly FDR was a far, far more secretive personality --- even to his closest family and aides.

But most importantly, a two or three hour documentary can hardly cover a six year long, world wide, effort that directly involved billions of participants.

Wartime penicillin was also a six year long world wide effort but one that, at least until its very late stages, no one saw as important enough to record all its contemporary events and personalities in minute detail.

But taking a hint from George Bernard Shaw and others, I still think I can boil it down to a libretto for a two and half hour 'spoken drama, with background radio music' in two dozen scenes ---- because I will add, as deep backstory, lengthy supporting bios of each new character, institution and process following upon each new scene.

About 400,000 hand crafted words (and a few thousand hand drawn typical images) in total (with some images being of my imagined lead sheets for the drama's typical background radio music.)

I seek to emphasize 'typical' because while usually I can't say for sure that any one character in the American side of the wartime penicillin drama listened to this one of the big American radio networks on this or that day, we can say with great certainty that a typical urban American in that period did listen, at least briefly, to all the big networks on each day of the war.

Similarly while we don't usually know how individual patients, families, front line medical staff and back room administrators in Dr Dawson's hospital reacted to each new diagnosis of 'terminal SBE', we know from hundreds of accounts in later medical memoirs and contemporary medical journal articles how people very like them typically reacted.

That is where the extensive medical library at my city's Dalhousie University Medical School, one of the oldest in Canada, is so useful.

It allows me to go well beyond the details we do know of at each of the twenty five or so major turning points in Dr Dawson's wartime penicillin quest, those scenes involving major decisions, crisis, opportunities, victories,defeats.

I can fill in those meagre details with how typical people reacted in similar circumstances --- that is what historians do - conjecture freely, but based on wide and deep reading of all the available general evidence, to help fill in for missing particular evidence....

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