Forgotten Science Heroes: Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley

Moulding A Myth: The Development of Penicillin

When we think of penicillin, we immediately think of Alexander Fleming. Fleming, whom we can assume was not a fan of washing-up, found a clump of penicillium mould on a dirty Petri dish in his laboratory and noticed that around the mould was a clear circle wherein bacteria had been unable to grow. Fleming realised that the mould must have released a substance, which he called penicillin, that was able to fight bacteria. Fleming wrote a paper about his discovery in 1928 positing potential medical purposes. However, his paper was largely ignored by scientists and Fleming, unsure how to produce copious amounts of penicillin, gave up on his research.

Fourteen years later, two scientists, Howard Florey, an Australian pharmacology professor at Oxford, and his German colleague Ernst Chain, came across Fleming’s paper.  Their team of researchers theorised the structure of penicillin and discovered how it works. They then used it to treat Albert Alexander, who had a scratch from a thorn that became seriously infected. Though at the beginning their treatment was successful, the strain on scientific resources caused by World War II meant they could only give him small amounts of penicillin and, when supplies soon ran out, Alexander died. Afterwards, they tested the drug on sick children since they required smaller quantities, with more success.

Realising penicillin could help with the war effort, Florey and Norman Heatley, a member of their research team, went to American pharmaceutical companies in order to encourage large-scale manufacturing of the drug. Eventually, a laboratory in Illinois snapped it up and provided enough supplies for the Normandy invasion in 1944. As a result, the application of penicillin to amputations on the battlefield increased their chances of success.

So why are Florey, Chain and Heatley largely forgotten? When the media came to Florey’s laboratory to talk about penicillin, Florey turned them away as he did not want to be distracted from his work. Thus they turned to Fleming who was hailed as a hero. Moreover, when the research was carried out in Illinois, a scientist called Dr. Moyer published the results under his own name and deliberately omitted Heatley’s name, despite the latter staying in America to work alongside him on condition that any work published would be co-authored.

Thus, although Fleming, Florey and Chain shared the Nobel Prize, Fleming received far more recognition for his contribution, whilst Heatley received minimal attention. Although many would argue that the discovery was more important than the clinical research, it was the tenacity of Florey, Chain and Heatley that paved the way for the significant impact penicillin and antibiotics were to have on the world.

[Liam Caldwell]

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