Is this the greatest Australian ever?

Q: What can you do with 6 bed pans, a biscuit tin, a dog bowl, some china plates and a bronze letterbox?

A: Well, if you’re Howard Florey you could make the world’s 1st antibiotic, save over 50,000,000 lives, win the Nobel Prize, and, as a bonus, get your face on the Australian $50 note.

In 1938 Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were get-ahead medical researchers at Oxford University. They had set themselves the task of producing penicillin as the world’s 1st practical and effective antibiotic.

Discovered 11 years earlier, penicillin was proving impossible to make in useable quantities. It was an unstable mold. Added to this, enormous amounts of a moldy “soup” had to be made and this soup only produced minute amounts of the active ingredient.

There were other problems. When injected into the body, penicillin took about 4 hours to take start working but within 2 hours it had either been dissolved in the stomach or had been flushed out in the urine. Penicillin left the body before it had a chance to do its work.

And, of course, money was a problem. Florey and Chain’s application to the British Medical Society for research money resulted in a grant of $50 (even in 1938, $50 didn’t even buy a whole lot of test tubes!)

World War II broke out. Food, petrol and clothes were rationed. Medical equipment was virtually impossible to get. Resolute, Florey and Chain stuck to their task. Chain discovered that refrigeration would stabilize the mold. Since they had no fridges, they made their own. Experimenting, they found that bed pans were the best way to grow the mold (the soup could easily be poured out from underneath the mold.) So they cornered the bed pan market.

Against all odds they scrounged and improvised all the equipment they needed. Florey’s determination to get what he needed earnt him the nickname among the Oxford Scholars as “the bushranger of research”.

Florey and Chain’s first human experiment with penicillin was on a man dying from a rose thorn infection. The pair exhausted every ounce of penicillin made from months of soup making. Their meagre supplies of penicillin were so precious that they recycled the patient’s urine to capture even a speck of the antibiotic flushed out of his body.

Florey and Chain persevered. They worked and worked and worked until they discovered practical ways to make penicillin a viable, effective antibiotic. They proved you don’t need ideal conditions to succeed. Everything seemed against them yet they prevailed.

Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia in 1949, remarked that Howard Florey “had the essential attributes of greatness: courage, integrity, tremendous drive and unswerving sense of direction.”

Dr. John Best said that “Florey is probably the greatest Australian who has ever lived.”

Mohammed Ali was one of the greats of the square ring. He was a three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer and winner of an Olympic Light-heavyweight gold medal. Sports Illustrated crowned him “Sportsman of the Century”. Ali was master of the lightening quick jab. He was also the master of the cutting remark. He once insulted an opponent with “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.”

Howard never had much to work with. All he had were everyday items, found in kitchens and hospital wards. Yet he developed a product that has saved millions of lives.

extract from “Stand on the Shoulders of Giants” Gerard Stevenson

© 2007 well imagine that Pty Ltd

Next Time: what are hydrogels and can they be used to repair spinal cord injuries?


Leave a Reply