Personal Correspondence


This material helps address how the general public were introduced to and understood pencillin, and how they tried to negotiate their relationship to the federal agents who controlled access to the drug. When penicillin was first produced, both its scarcity as well as the lack of understanding within and without scientific communities together meant that the use of penicillin was restricted to military personnel. As production methods improved, the availability of penicillin increased, but only under specific, controlled conditions.

Nevertheless, private citizens did attempt to influence the distribution of penicillin, by writing directly to the person they thought could most help them - President Roosevelt. In these letters, people describe their illnesses, the illnesses of spouses, parents, children, or their patients, and plead with the president that he intervene, and provide them with the new miracle drug. Although Eleanor occasionally responded to these requests personally, the Roosevelts rarely saw the letters. Instead, the President's assistants forwarded most of these letters to Keefer's office in Boston, which sometimes took up to a month to arrive at Massachusetts Memorial. Moreover, if requests did not come from a patient's physician, Keefer sent a form letter indicating that a letter or telephone call >from the person's physician was necessary for consideration of his or her case. These requests, which were moving and often quite heart wrenching, convey the hope (not infrequently a false hope in the promise of penicillin), desperation and confusion the public experienced in relation to penicillin in the early stages of its development and production.

Examine each of the letters carefully. Pay special attention to who wrote each letter, and to whom each is addressed. Note the tone, language and content of each. Also note the action taken, if any, in response to the appeals. What differences do you recognize between the letters? What significant differences do you see in the rhetorical strategies used in these letters (e.g. in what terms and with what claims do authors request or demand access to penicillin)? What differences do you recognize in the effectiveness of these strategies, or, put differently, who received penicillin and who did not? What do the thoughts, hopes and ideas revealed in the letters reveal about how the public viewed science and medicine, and their significance and role in their daily lives at this time? How did the public understand penicillin? Were there differences? What major influences do you think contributed to shaping these perceptions? How did the public attempt to negotiate the relationship between themselves and the federal bureaucracy that controlled their access to the drug? What do you think the public believed to be the nature of this relationship?

Personal Correspondence Archive: