Blue Plaques | University of Oxford

Blue Plaques

On Tuesday 29 May, two new Blue Plaques will be unveiled in the city on University buildings to commemorate their relevance in the history of medicine. 

At 2.30pm a plaque at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology will acknowledge the pioneering work which took place there, transforming penicillin into the viable treatment which revolutionised the treatment of bacterial infection. 

The other plaque ceremony takes place at the former Radcliffe Infirmary at 3.30pm. This marks the building’s importance – as the site of the first clinical trials of the drug in 1941.

It is well known that Alexander Fleming identified the antibiotic properties of penicillin in 1928 when he observed that a curious fungus had destroyed bacteria on a plate left in his laboratory while he was on holiday.

It is much less well known that pioneering work on the isolation and purification of penicillin to make it a viable treatment of bacterial disease was performed by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley and their colleagues at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford 1938-1941. Their ground-breaking work led to the birth of modern medicine and the golden era of antibiotics which we have long taken for granted. 

When the moment came for clinical trials, the scientists at the Dunn School liaised with a young doctor, Charles Fletcher, at the Radcliffe Infirmary. 

The first person treated with penicillin was Albert Alexander, an Abingdon police constable, who on 12 February 1941 was dying from a septic wound on the infirmary’s Briscoe Ward. He began to make a rapid recovery but there was not a sufficient quantity of purified penicillin available and he relapsed and died. Six patients altogether were selected for treatment. It was clear from the trials that penicillin was a miracle drug. 

By 1944 it was being mass produced with the help of laboratories in the USA, to the immediate benefit of soldiers wounded in WW2 who before the advent of penicillin would have died from septicaemia. 

After the final closure of the old Radcliffe Infirmary in 2007, Oxford University began works to transform the 10-acre plot into the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, one of the most significant development projects the University has undertaken for more than a century.  

Following a 14.1 million transformation, in 2016 the former Outpatients’ building became home to the University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, heralding a new era of medical innovation on the site.

The Blue Plaque will highlight the building’s proud place in the history of medicine.