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

By Maureen Corrigan
Saturday, August 7, 2010


By Lauren Belfer

Harper. 532 pp. $25.99

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.

As the romance between Claire and Jamie heats up, so does the pressure to find a way to generate huge quantities of the drug. "A Fierce Radiance" ushers in a host of colorful secondary characters, all scientists at Rockefeller, who are working with soil and even sewage samples to find a medium that will grow the antibiotic effectively. Drawing on historical research, Belfer also sketches out the uneasy alliance between the federal government and private drug companies, in which patriotism vied with profit-making. The pharmaceutical companies were prohibited from patenting penicillin, but they could -- and did -- go on to patent the antibiotics discovered as a consequence of their research. The government tried to keep them from diverting their energies away from penicillin to the development of these lucrative "cousins."

So engrossing is Belfer's account of the penicillin quest that it's a letdown when she introduces a murder mystery subplot a third of the way through her novel. The victim is Jamie's sister, Tia, a mycologist (fungus researcher) also working at Rockefeller. Tia was rumored to have made an important discovery in one of her mud samples: Nazi sympathizers, greedy fellow researchers and jealous boyfriends are all suspected of knocking her off in order to grab her lab notes. This dopey digression feels at odds with the sense of authenticity that otherwise graces Belfer's story. That authenticity is especially evident in her beautifully detailed depictions of wartime New York.

How quickly the home-front anxieties during World War II have been forgotten. How quickly, also, that the everyday terrors posed by pneumonia, scarlet fever and scraped knees were diminished, thanks to penicillin and other antibiotics. "A Fierce Radiance" vividly brings back that time of both terror and eventual triumph.

Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.

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