The Mystique of Color

In making his assessment of the time taken by Elberfeld researchers to bring Prontosil to market, Hare does not know of, or chooses to ignore, the background of skepticism regarding the possibilities of bacterial chemotherapy that was widespread in the medical community in the early 1930s. Nor, apparently, is he aware of Horlein's characteristic caution in introducing new drugs into medical practice.45 More seriously, Hare's analysis reflects no awareness of the framework of thinking that guided Elberfeld researchers and that made it unlikely that they would even raise the question of sulfanilamide's effectiveness. Part of this framework is captured in Auhagen's reference to the "myth and fascination of color" that led the Elberfeld group to seek a dye with therapeutic action. Color in this context meant the azo bond, and the genealogy of Prontosil indeed placed it among azo dyes with medicinal effect, such as chrysoidine, phenazopyridine, and neotropine. Even the member of the Elberfeld research establishment most likely to raise the question of sulfanilamide's therapeutic qualities saw Prontosil in this way. Gerhard Hecht, a pharmacologist in Horlein's organization, recognized that, in general, the azo bond was not necessary for therapeutic action, citing as example the sleeping sickness remedy Germanin (Bayer 205), which was colorless. Hecht also emphasized the importance of using constituents and intermediate products of dyes in the synthesis of medicines. Nowhere, however, did Hecht suggest that dyes in general, or basic azo dyes in particular, became therapeutically active when broken down in the body. When he mentioned Prontosil up to 1935, it was as a basic azo dye related to chrysoidine but with a particular substitution that made it effective against septic illnesses caused by streptococci.

Even after the Pasteur Institute publication and general recognition of the therapeutic action of sulfanilamide, the Elberfeld group continued to present sul-fanilamide as a product of the breakdown of Prontosil, a "fragment" compound, an attitude given expression in the I.G. Farben trade name, Prontosil Album, or colorless Prontosil. This name has the form of a binomial, indicating that the substance is merely one species within the genus Prontosil. Such language suggests not only the temporal priority of Prontosil but also a way of thinking according to which the dye molecule was regarded as a whole, and sulfanilamide as a mere part. This is not a language or way of thinking that would have encouraged testing of sulfanilamide, although it could be and was adapted after the fact to acknowledge recognition of the "fragment" compound's action. As late as 1937, Domagk was voicing doubts about the views "expressed by certain French and British authors" that Prontosil and related compounds were effective only when broken down by a reductive process in the body. That Domagk attributed this idea to the French and British and had to be convinced of its validity renders it unlikely that he had the notion independently or pursued its implications in laboratory or clinical tests.46

In the last analysis, the plausibility of the Hare thesis depends on hindsight, a capacity that may distort as well as illuminate. How could the German researchers not have realized what soon became common knowledge and the starting point for new generations of sulfa drugs? The answer to this question emerges when Prontosil is viewed not from the standpoint of later developments but as the product of an older research program both driven and bounded by the world of its own concepts and practices.

By the time that Prontosil entered the German market and medical practice in 1935, the Elberfeld pharmaceutical research establishment had weathered early challenges from Nazi ideologues and had made a start at pushing beyond Pron-tosil to identify compounds with better or different qualities as antibacterial agents. In the next decade, it would continue its work in the face of new and varied pressures, first from the regime, then from a long and devastating war.

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