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

Failing our kids

A decade of debate about school funding, and we’re going backwards

Photo of Liam Gallagher

Don’t look back in anger: Liam and Noel Gallagher

As interest in Oasis resurges, talking to the combative brothers recalls their glory years as ‘dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas’

Image from ‘Atlantics’

Mati Diop’s haunting ‘Atlantics’

The French-Senegalese director channels ancient fables and contemporary nightmares in this ghostly love story

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Diaries (2018–19)

Collected thoughts on writers seeking permission to write, Eurydice Dixon, the Nobel for Murnane and dealing with errant chooks


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

Image of Cardi B

Bodak moment: Pop’s decade of superstars

Cardi B delivered the song of the decade as a new league of superstars overcame the significance of bands

Photo of Liam Gallagher

Don’t look back in anger: Liam and Noel Gallagher

As interest in Oasis resurges, talking to the combative brothers recalls their glory years as ‘dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas’

Conversion on the way to Damascus by Caravaggio

Damascene subversion: Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘Damascus’

The literary storyteller’s latest novel wrestles with the mythology of Christianity’s founder, Paul the Apostle

Cover of Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This Is Not Propaganda’ [detail]

Agents of chaos: Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This is Not Propaganda’

The Russian expat journalist wonders if democracy can survive the internet, as social media is used to promote feelings over facts


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 from ‘Atlantics’

Mati Diop’s haunting ‘Atlantics’

The French-Senegalese director channels ancient fables and contemporary nightmares in this ghostly love story

Image of Nasty Cherry

‘I’m with the Band: Nasty Cherry’

This Netflix series pays lip service to female empowerment in the music industry, but ultimately reinforces its limits

Image from ‘The Crown’

Streaming highlights: November 2019

‘The Crown’, ‘For All Mankind’ and ‘Dickinson’ offer new perspectives on history, and pragmatism meets pyramid schemes in ‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’

Image of Quarterly Essay 76: Red Flag

What does China want from Australia?

On Australia’s efforts to resist Beijing’s campaign for influence – A Quarterly Essay extract


×
×