It’s autumn of 1940 and Beatrice Lee is a first year student at Britain’s famed University of Oxford. Looking for some meaning beyond her studies, and maybe to get out from under the shadow of her older brother, Beatrice becomes involved with a team of professors and grad students working on a new, classified medical treatment. Coping with class deadlines, vulnerable test subjects, and her parents’ concerns, Beatrice and her colleagues will help save millions of lives with a breakthrough that, after the Manhattan Project, is considered to be the most important innovation of World War II.
I wrote this book in 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Those were hectic times. The world was in a battle to contain the outbreak and mitigate its deadly effects. Scientists around the globe fought to develop a response. As a veteran history teacher, I couldn’t help but make connections between the events dominating the daily news and past international collaborative endeavors, like the allied efforts of the Second World War and the fight against polio.
In 2020 my family and I were stranded in Myanmar when the country’s airports were closed to slow the spread of the virus. One day, while surfing an online history website, I stumbled across an intriguing, but relatively obscure story – British scientists flying in an unmarked airplane in the dark of night, with samples of their top-secret new discovery smeared into the creases of their overcoats to preserve their work in case they were shot down by Nazi fighter planes.
Why wasn’t this story more widely known? Who were these heroic characters? With time on my hands, I dove into the history of the development of penicillin, the first antibiotic. The more I learned, the more I realized that I had to write this story. As a middle school teacher, I knew I wanted to make the tale accessible to young adult readers. That meant I needed a protagonist who was younger than the real life people at the heart of these events. When I learned about the Penicillin Girls – the Oxford grad students recruited by researchers to tend to the “mould juice” and harvest tiny amounts of precious penicillin during the production process – I knew I found my narrator. The Penicillin Girls gave me a plausible gateway into the circumstances that took place in Oxford and provided an authentic and vital female participant in a traditionally male-dominated genre.
I spent two weeks hammering out the fundamental parts of the book and the next month or so revising and fine-tuning. My wife, an elementary teacher and a reading specialist, provided much needed guidance and support throughout this process.
I hope this book captivates and inspires young readers and serves as a reminder that throughout human history, many generations have had to step up, break barriers, and come together to survive.
Penicillin Girl is available at Amazon.