July 2011

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Howard Florey & Alexander Fleming

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

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.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: July 2011

July 2011

From the front page

Image of Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit.

Chequered careers: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘The Good Lord Bird’

Among October’s streaming highlights are stories of a teenage chess prodigy and a zealous abolitionist

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today.

Having us on

What job is the Morrison government getting on with, exactly?

Image showing Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar

Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Image from Rebecca, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the novel’s nuance


In This Issue

Chris Bowen working the stage in Canberra. © Donglei Chen

The hot seat

Chris Bowen and the Malaysian Solution

'Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing', By Craig Collie,Allen and Unwin, 352pp; $32.99

‘Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing’ By Craig Collie

The Gillard government is set to triple the number of Headspace youth mental health centres. © Jason South/Fairfax Photos

Minds at risk

Choosing the right path for adolescent mental health

'The Hall of Uselessness', By Simon Leys, Black Inc, 512pp; $49.95

‘The Hall of Uselessness’ by Simon Leys


More in Arts & Letters

Listening to Roberta Flack

‘First Take’, released 50 years ago, still echoes through the present

Body politic: ‘Boys State’

American democracy is documented in all its gangly, acne-mottled glory

In our nature: ‘Vesper Flights’

Helen Macdonald explores how the study of animals reveals unknown aspects of ourselves

Image of OneFour rapper J Emz

The trenches of Mount Druitt: OneFour

Australia’s most infamous hip-hop act is an all-Pasifika group born of Western Sydney’s violent postcode wars


More in Encounters

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Rupert Murdoch & Kamahl

Mark Oliphant & J Robert Oppenheimer

John Monash & King George V

John Howard & Uri Geller


Read on

Image of Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit.

Chequered careers: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘The Good Lord Bird’

Among October’s streaming highlights are stories of a teenage chess prodigy and a zealous abolitionist

Image showing Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar

Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Image from Rebecca, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the novel’s nuance

Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull with a screenshot of Turnbull’s confirmation of signing the petition

The Corp’s bride

Despite a widely supported petition, the government is too scared to take on the Murdoch empire


×
×