MY HUSBAND IS a New York Times crossword puzzle and trivia expert so when I asked him Who discovered penicillin? of course he answered Alexander Fleming. Had he ever heard of Howard Florey? No.
Eric Laxs book The Mold in Dr. Floreys Coat tells the story of how Howard Florey and his team at Oxford University took Alexander Flemings penicillin mold, which Fleming had dismissed as too difficult to extract and purify, and developed the first wonder drug that would save hundreds and eventually millions of lives worldwide. The most Fleming had done with his penicillin mold broth was to use it to decontaminate petri dishes in his lab.
Eric Lax regularly reads obituaries and it was in June of 1999 that the obituary of Anne Miller caught his eye. In 1942 Mrs. Miller was dying of a systemic streptococcal infection after suffering a miscarriage. Mrs. Millers doctor happened to know a friend of Floreys and was able to obtain a teaspoon of the still experimental drug that saved her life. Mrs. Millers temperature was 105.5 when she got the penicillin. By the next morning her temperature was normal for the first time in a month.
So begins the frustrating and fascinating story of how science and discovery, as with many group endeavors, are influenced by personality, politics and happenstance. And how families are often secondary to science in the lives of men like Howard Florey and his colleagues.
The use of molds, including mushrooms, to treat various human ailments dates back to early Greek and Roman societies. Fleming certainly deserves the credit for recognizing that there was something potentially important in his mold. Many had stumbled upon penicillin mold but Fleming was the only one who looked at what he had tripped on. Fleming was the first to recognize the antibacterial qualities in penicillin and wrote several papers on penicillin in the late 1920s. However, when he found it too difficult to extract and refine the active ingredient in the mold, he went on to other things. It was Howard Florey, a Rhodes scholar from Australia, who painstakingly did the work that made penicillin a life saving reality.
Eric Lax weaves the personal lives, mental illnesses and medical histories of Florey and his colleagues with their professional lives, to produce the fabric of the story of penicillin. Personalities clash again and again until reaching a crescendo during the controversy over who would receive the Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin. To Florey and his colleagues dismay, Alexander Fleming had received most of the public acclaim for the discovery of penicillin and didnt do much to give credit to Florey and his team for its development. While Fleming enjoyed the public attention, other fellow scientists supported Florey and his colleagues. One friend wrote to Florey In time, even the public will realize that the thing that mattered most has been the persistent and highly meritorious work of your laboratory. The dish you have turned out is so great that you must swallow the rather nauseating but temporary publicity ingredient with a smile. Because of such support, the Nobel Prize was given to Fleming, Florey and Ernst Chain, a German scientist who worked with Florey at Oxford.
The technical problems of growing the most potent mold, discovering which bacteria were effected by penicillin, evaluating the effects of penicillin on human cells and tissues, identifying the chemical structure of penicillin and how it acted were just some of the issues that faced Florey and his team. It was an Englishman, Norman Heatley, who, although not a recipient of the Nobel Prize, was key in solving the riddle of penicillins instability and developing a method for producing penicillin that had eluded Fleming. Heatleys method for extracting penicillin was used hundreds of millions of times by scientists around the world. He did most of his research during World War II and had to use parachute silk for filter bags and biscuit tins, dust bins, gas cans and bed pans for growing and purifying penicillin.
Nearly as much time was spent in obtaining grants to help support Floreys research as in the research itself. Eventually it was pharmaceutical companies in the United States and not Great Britain Merck, Squibb, Pfizer and Lederle who took interest in the mass production of penicillin. Fleming, Florey, and Chain never made a cent on penicillin, except for their share of the Nobel Prize. While the Oxford team developed penicillin for only a few thousand dollars it takes up to $900 million to develop a new drug today. And antibiotics are often only good for a few years before bacteria become resistant to them. Interestingly however, group A streptococcus, the bacteria that causes strep throat, is still as sensitive to penicillin as it was sixty years ago.
Florey never wrote his memoirs. If he had, he might well have claimed that the first beneficiary of penicillin was not Anne Miller but actually Alexander Fleming. The neuroscientist Maxwell Cowan wrote Fleming was the first person Florey saved. Without Floreys work he would have gone down as a somewhat eccentric microbiologist.
I am giving Eric Laxs book to my husband so when Howard Florey makes it to the New York Times crossword puzzle, as the person who developed penicillin, he will get it right.
Carol Christensen Cordy taught English and mathematics in Debra Tabor and Makele, Ethiopia. Today, Dr. Cordy works as a family physician at a community clinic in Seattle, Washington a city full of mold where she and her husband of 34 years have raised three children and many plants and pets.