Miracle with bitter twist

The Mould in Dr Florey's Coat
August 13, 2004

On Saturday May 25, 1940, in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University, eight mice were injected with a lethal dose of virulent bacteria. Shortly afterwards, four were given an injection of penicillin and the remainder were left untreated. On the following day, the injected mice were in good condition and the untreated animals were dying.

While this momentous experiment was under way, the war in Europe was taking a turn for the worse and it was widely believed that an invasion of the British Isles was imminent. The scientists involved were anxious that their discovery should not fall into enemy hands. As penicillin is derived from a mould, they decided to rub its spores into the fabric of their coats, where it could lie dormant for years - if they had to flee, they would carry their work with them.

The remarkable story of the discovery and development of penicillin has been told many times. While the romantic notion of a mould blowing through a window from Praed Street and contaminating a bacterial plate has largely been discredited, accounts of the observations of its properties by Alexander Fleming never lose their fascination. But there are fewer popular descriptions of the remarkable perseverance and technical skills of the Oxford scientists -Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley and their colleagues - whose later work led to the purification of sufficient penicillin to treat the four mice. Their subsequent efforts to press for the commercial development of penicillin were to save countless lives in the later years of the war, and beyond. Although the story of the development of the first antibiotic may lack the intellectual excitement of some great discoveries, it is a remarkable testament to human ingenuity and determination.

Of course, there are always downsides to most fields of human endeavour. In this case, they revolve mainly around the sad breakdown of relationships between some of the scientists involved, and the matter of recognition; while Fleming, Florey and Chain received the Nobel Prize and almost every other civic and scientific honour possible, Heatley was completely ignored until, belatedly, Oxford offered him an honorary doctorate. Yet it is clear from all the accounts of the purification and commercial development of penicillin that without Heatley, the work would have never come to fruition, or not for many years.

In retelling this story, Eric Lax focuses mainly on the trials and tribulations of the Oxford team. Without sacrificing accuracy when clarifying the more complex issues involved, he paints a vivid picture of the extraordinary technical ingenuity that underpinned this work, so essential in view of the shoestring budget on which it was based. It will be asked, of course, whether another account of the penicillin story is needed; medical historians are already well served by extensive biographies of the persons involved, particularly those of Fleming and Florey by Gwyn Macfarlane. But a good story is always worth retelling, and Lax's lively account should have wide appeal to medical scientists and public alike. Now that much of the expensive technology-driven research of young scientists is moving from the bench to the computer screen, it will do them no harm to learn how remarkable scientific advances can be made with negligible equipment and financial support, given a mix of a high level of motivation, endless perseverance and, above all, technical skill and inventiveness.

Sir David Weatherall is emeritus regius professor of medicine, Oxford University.

The Mould in Dr Florey's Coat: The Remarkable True Story of the Penicillin Miracle

Author - Eric Lax Little
Publisher - Brown
Pages - 389
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 316 85925 7

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