British scientist Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928 but was unable to develop it on a larger scale. He could not convince officials that he had made a miraculous discovery; penicillin was too difficult to produce. It lay dormant until the outbreak of World War II, and in the meantime, people continued to die from untreated infections that seemed harmless at first. Research then shifted to the United States. Mass production of penicillin was achieved, but it was limited by the U.S. government to be used only to treat soldiers. Alternative antibiotics were eventually produced which were called Aureomycin and Erythromycin. Lauren Belfer’s novel, “A Fierce Radiance,” is a fictional tale of events surrounding this historical change in the history of medicine.
The story begins in December 1941, just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The author gives us a tale which has everything. We are introduced to the ethical world of a hospital where mystery abounds as well as the corporate world where functionaries in a profit-conscious bureaucracy will stop at nothing to gain access to the latest miracle drug for their market.
Claire Shipley, a divorcee and photojournalist working for Life magazine, has come to the Rockefeller Institute in New York to record one of the earliest trials of a new medication called penicillin. Experiments with mice have shown that the treatment can possibly cure a number of ailments which have baffled the medical profession, including tuberculosis and staph infections. However, the serum, harvested from small droplets that leak from a green mold, produces so slowly that it is almost impossible to accommodate the massive amounts required to rid the victim’s body of the onslaught. This was Alexander Fleming’s dilemma before the studies of penicillin reached American shores.
Claire has a personal as well as a professional interest in the topic since her 3-year-old daughter died of a blood infection which might have been cured if penicillin were available seven years ago. Sadly, the trauma brought on a divorce between Claire and her husband. Their 8-year-old son Charlie lives with Claire and has been her main concern.
An excellent photographer, Claire is proud to have been given the important assignment of recording the journey of the first patient to be given the new medication after he developed a serious infection in his knee following a tennis accident. She is introduced to the handsome young doctor in charge of the experiment, James Stanton, and his equally capable younger sister, Tia, a mycologist specializing in the study of fungi and molds. The siblings have a personal interest in the future use of penicillin since their parents died in the influenza epidemic that ravaged the country following the First World War.
On the day after receiving his first dose of penicillin, the patient was awake and alert and seemed completely recovered. A relapse would prove dangerous since it would take considerable time to replenish the supply from the growing mold. Sadly, the patient died without continued treatment, but officials were convinced that a method had to be found to mass-produce the miracle drug.
Claire and the doctor are attracted to each other and are soon drawn into a confederate relationship when Stanton’s sister Tia is murdered, supposedly through her connection to the possibility of producing alternative antibiotics to penicillin which would not have the strict oversight of government regulations and could also be produced in mass quantities.
Lauren Belfer is clever enough not to tie up all the loose ends in the last chapter of her book, as often happens with less ingenious writers. Not everyone lives happily ever after in Laura Belfer’s world. This is refreshing. Oftentimes, a second novel following a smash hit (such as “City of Light”) does not live up to our expectations. I believe that “A Fierce Radiance” has far outstripped Lauren Belfer's first novel and foreshadows even greater output from her in the future. She knows the secret of how to lay out a good story.