The Penicillin Papers unearthed

Both our Hospitals have long legacies built on the goodwill of benefactors, the hard work of nurses, doctors and academic staff, and the best practice medicine of the day.

Much of this history is well known, documented and complemented by relationships with universities and research institutes. Our Hospitals did not build their expertise in isolation.

So it came as a surprise when details of the first use of penicillin in Australia were recently uncovered in the archive of The Children’s’ Hospital at Westmead (CHW).

While it was known that Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, now The Children's Hospital at Westmead, treated the first Australian civilian with penicillin, details had not been made public nor had the evidence for the claim been examined.

When Beth Robinson, a Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies student at The University of Sydney, commenced a placement with the CHW Heritage Committee in May to review the inventory of the Hospital archive, she was completely unaware of the significant discovery she was about to make.

Beth spoke with Anne Cooke (Hospital Archivist from 1992-2006) about the catalogue and numbering system used for the archive, and in passing Anne mentioned the existence of the Penicillin Papers. The following day, Beth and her supervisor, Carole Best, set out to locate them. Neither had any inkling of what the yellowed envelope and its 24-page contents would reveal.

At first examination, it was clear the documents were fragile and in need of conservation. Several of the pages were brittle, and all had numerous folds making reading difficult. A small envelope with a wax seal reading “Silence Saves Soldiers” required consolidation. So before the documents were read in full, the Hospital engaged Preservation Australia to conserve them. This involved re-humidifying and flattening them and inserting them into polyester sleeves readying them for research and handling.

On the return of the Papers to the Hospital, a team of specialists gathered and a period of fevered research began.

The documents tell a poignant story. It’s mid-1943, at the height of the war, and a six-year-old boy lay dying in hospital. Suffering from severe pneumococcal meningitis despite administration of three types of sulfa drugs used to treat infectious diseases, the boy's condition was worsening, and doctors held grave fears for his life.

A cable from the Commonwealth of Australia War Supplies Procurement in Washington dated 10 July 1943 confirms the despatch of Penicillin by “special messenger with the highest priority on the 4.54 pm plane”. At that time, penicillin was still experimental and stocks were limited and tightly held, mostly trialled on war casualties in Sicily. There was no routine supply of penicillin to civilians. How the request came about and why this particular six-year-old was destined to receive it, remains unclear.

The following day, 1 million units of sodium salt of penicillin, packed in dry ice, began its flight on a Liberator bomber from San Francisco to Australia, courtesy of the American Army.

The penicillin treatment started on 15 July.

“We know that two days after penicillin therapy started, the boy’s temperature had returned to normal, and he sat up and had bacon and eggs for breakfast,“ says Clinical Associate Professor Alyson Kakakios, OAM who interpreted the medical charts located within the Penicillin Papers.

The report reads, "The child's condition improved amazingly" Professor Kakakios said.

On the 16 July 1943, a request from Alan Newton, Chair of the Department of Defence Medical Equipment Control Committee beseeching Dr Vickery, the prescribing doctor, “to refrain from mentioning Penicillin to the relatives of any other patient who may be similarly afflicted … as we will be inundated by requests for similar action … and we will be unable to meet the demands”.

From then until mid-1944, the incident remained secret, and although released by the Censor in April 1944, the information remained outside the accepted history of the use of penicillin in Australia.

Tilly Boleyn, science, health and medicine curator at the Powerhouse Museum said this new information changes the official records in terms of Australians being treated with penicillin.

“To my knowledge this will rewrite the accepted story of the introduction of penicillin in Australia. This story is amazing and I can’t wait to find out more”, she said.

With the support of Glen Farrow, Sydney Children’s Hospital Network’s Director of Clinical Governance investigation into the military connections commenced. These are ongoing, with the US Consulate in Sydney providing assistance. 

Beth worked with Trish Bennett, Medical Library Manager at CHW, to locate the family. They ascertained the child was still alive.

The Hospital recently made contact with the ‘boy’, Peter Harrison, now 82 years old, to alert him of the discovery.

“It was wonderful to finally meet the man whose story I had been tracing”, said Beth, who along with a film crew from ABC’s 7.30 and Linda Daetwyler, Acting Consul General US, met Peter in Sydney last week.

“It's almost 75 years to the day that he was discharged from Hospital, so meeting Peter and his a family really makes the research worthwhile and breathes life into the story for everyone”, she said.

Peter's father was Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Leo Harrison. His treating doctors were Dr Lindsay Dey and Dr Donald Vickery. Peter was treated at Wade House, a wing of the Camperdown Hospital.

Peter still remembers the frightening ride to the Hospital in an ambulance, receiving painful injections, and meeting the American pilots who delivered the penicillin to the Hospital. The pilots gave him a set of 'wings' that Peter says was highly-prized by his sisters.

Even better, he remembers being discharged after three months of hospitalisation.

When Peter left Hospital on 4 August 1943, the word 'Cured' was written on his chart.