Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Howard Florey & Alexander Fleming
On 2 September 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged, a short, grey-headed man with a dapper bow tie presented himself at the pathology laboratory at Oxford University.
“Hullo,” he said to the grouchy, work-absorbed Australian in charge. “I hear you’ve been doing things with my old penicillin. I’d be interested to look around.”
Thus Alexander Fleming met Howard Florey.
As a battlefield doctor in the Great War, Fleming had fought infected wounds with chemical antimicrobials that were more toxic than the invading germs. In the years that followed, he searched for effective antibacterial agents. In 1928 he discovered that one of his Petri dishes of staphylococcus culture was contaminated with a blue–green mould that appeared to inhibit bacteria growth. The spores had probably grown in a stack of dirty plates left in a corner while he was away on holiday. Although a brilliant researcher, Fleming kept a sloppy lab.
He grew a pure culture of the mould, identified it as one of the Penicillium genus and brewed it into a “mould broth” that killed a range of disease-causing bacteria. After further experiments, he named the substance penicillin, concluded it was useful only as a disinfectant and published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. Interest was underwhelming.
Howard Florey, a Rhodes Scholar from Adelaide, was a splendid experimentalist, obsessively methodical and publicity-shy. By 1935 he had risen to professor of pathology at Oxford. Recruiting the refugee biochemist Ernst Chain, he began investigating natural antibacterial agents. Aware of Fleming’s article, he tried penicillin. The mice were responsive.
Florey and his team published their results in the Lancet. When Fleming saw the paper – ‘Penicillin as a Chemotherapeutic Agent’ – he immediately invited himself to Florey’s Oxford lab.
Florey and Chain escorted their unexpected, self-invited visitor through the laboratories, described their extraction techniques and gave him a tiny sample of the concentrate. Fleming was quiet and non-committal, as if he didn’t understand their explanations. He returned to London with no comment or word of praise, never to return.
Interest in the experimental drug remained limited to medical scientists until, two years later, Fleming called Florey. A friend was on the brink of death and anything was worth a shot. Florey offered his limited supply on condition he could use the case notes. Galvanised by his friend’s near-miraculous recovery, Fleming alerted the war cabinet.
In 1945 Florey and Fleming shared the Nobel Prize for medicine.