Florey Story

Peter Medawar

  • Howard Florey: The Making of a Great Scientist by Gwyn Macfarlane
    Oxford, 396 pp, £7.95

Howard Walter Florey was a great man and nomistake. He devoted the more important partof his professional life to a single wholly admirable purpose which he pursued until he achieved it, showing, in spite of many setbacks and rebuffs, the magnanimity that is the minimal entry qualification for being considered ‘great’. In a memorialaddress, Patrick Blackett likened Florey’s achievement to that of Jenner, Pasteur and Lister: but the public were so little aware of him that when Macfarlane first approached publishers with the notion of a biography, they wondered if he would not do better to write on Alexander Fleming instead. This, Macfarlane surmises, was because the public had already cast Fleming as the hero of the great penicillin story: he was a closer approximation than Howard Florey to the public’s stereotype of a great scientist, for, although a great scientist, Florey was the kind of man who would have been a success at anything he had chosen to turn his hand to. Macfarlane thinks the comparison of Florey with Jenner, Pasteur and Lister is specially aptbecause ‘the work of these three men forms a logical sequence with his own that spans, in the course of about 150 years, the gulf between almost totaltherapeutic helplessness and the virtual defeat of most of the important bacterialdiseases.’ Whatever the general public may have thought about him, Florey stood unsurpassably high in the estimation of his colleagues – that which meansmost to a scientist – and in due course they elected him head of their profession in England as President of the Royal Society.

It is fortunate for mankind that no Geneva convention prohibits the prosecution of germ warfare by germs themselves, among whom the struggle for existence is murderous and unremitting. Penicillin is one of a class of substances manufactured by moulds and bacteria – particularly soil bacteria, which live in deplorable conditions of squalor and overcrowding: these are substances which suppress the growth or multiplication of othermicroorganisms. Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming: by luck, so it is believed, though in reality Fleming had been looking for something very like penicillin all his life. The only element of blind luck about the discovery of penicillin was that, unlike most antibiotics, penicillin is not poisonous to human beings and other higher animals: the reason is that penicillin interferes with metabolic processes peculiar to bacteria, whereas some other antibiotics like actinomycin and mitomycin are toxic because they obstruct a cellular activity common to bacteria and ourselves.

Before a good scientist tries to persuade others that he is on to something good, he must first convince himself. The first experiment that convinced Florey and his two colleagues, Norman Heatley and Ernst Chain, that they might be on to something occurred very shortly alter the German Army– ‘to the inexplicable surprise of the Allied Command – instead of dashing themselves to pieces on the Maginot line, drove their Panzer columns round the northern end of it, and swept between the British and French armies against almost no resistance until they reached the coast nearAbbeville’. At 11 a.m. on Saturday, 25 May, 1940, eight white mice received approximately eight times the minimal lethal number of streptococci. Four of these were set aside as controls, but four others received injections ofpenicillin – either a single injection of 10 milligrams or repeated injections of 5 milligrams.

The mice were watched all night (but of course). All four mice unprotected by penicillin haddied by 3.30 a.m. Heatley recordedthe details and cycled home in the black-out.Poor mice? Yes of course poor mice, but poor human beings too, don’t forget:

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