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Lauren Belfer's "A Fierce Radiance," about the search for penicillin during WWII

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From lowly mold to measured savior of humankind: That's the story of penicillin. Discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, penicillin was a finicky substance to work with; it was left on the shelf, so to speak, until the advent of World War II, when the Allies became desperate for a medicine that could be mass-produced to fight battlefield infections (as well as sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis). Because the Brits were busy repelling the blitz, the challenge was taken up by American pharmaceutical companies, working shoulder to shoulder with government labs and private research institutions. They succeeded. As Lauren Belfer tells us in an afterword to her compelling new novel, "A Fierce Radiance," on "D-Day, in June 1944, every medic going ashore in France carried penicillin in his pack." On the home front, deaths from infections, including scarlet fever, pneumonia and blood poisoning caused by accidental cuts and scrapes were dramatically reduced.

As she demonstrated in her best-selling first novel, "City of Light" (1999), Belfer is adept at writing historical fiction that sizzles. Sex, spies, murder, big money, family betrayals, doomed romance and exotic travel are smoothly braided into her main narrative about the wartime race to make large quantities of penicillin. The focus of the story is Claire Shipley -- a single mother who works as a photojournalist for Life magazine. Think a hotter version of Margaret Bourke-White. The novel opens in December 1941 with Claire on assignment at New York's Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University). Doctors are administering a small dose of penicillin to a middle-aged banker who has developed blood poisoning after scraping his knee on a racquetball court. Camera in hand, Claire documents the experimental procedure that, as luck would have it, is conducted by a hunky single doctor named Jamie Stanton. But after a miraculous rally, the patient declines and dies. The problem? Not enough penicillin is yet available for a full course of treatment.
 
 

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