OSB archive
OSB archive

Penicillin's forgotten heroes

Pete Wilton

Who really invented the wonder drug penicillin?

Alexander Fleming is the name in our history books but tonight a new BBC drama highlights the role Oxford University scientists played in this vital medical breakthrough.

Breaking the Mould: The Story of Penicillin, which airs on BBC Four tonight at 9pm, tells the story of the team which turned Fleming's discovery, that the mould Penicillium notatum produced a substance that inhibited the growth of some bacteria, into the drug that transformed medicine.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: 'Alexander Fleming had ‘discovered’ penicillin, essentially by accident, in 1928, but he and his colleagues found that the culture extract containing penicillin was unstable and the antibiotic was impossible to isolate in a pure state, and so they effectively gave up research on it.'

The Oxford scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were key members of the team which began comprehensive experiments with Fleming's mould in 1939, soon after drafting in their colleague Norman Heatley to help solve many of the problems involved in turning out a useful product.

Florey's successor as Head of the Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford, Sir Henry Harris, has written an excellent summary of how the drug was developed and the many scientists who contributed.

In it he highlights the 'forgotten man' of the Oxford group, Norman Heatley, who controversially did not share the 1945 Nobel Prize for the discovery with Fleming, Florey and Chain, writing:

'Heatley's contributions were critical. He first devised the cylinder-plate diffusion technique that provided a reliable and sensitive assay for penicillin and that was later adopted as the standard assay for antibiotic activity.'

'He then suggested a procedure for extracting from organic solvents, in which penicillin was soluble, a stable salt that was soluble in water. This procedure formed the basis of an early counter-current distribution apparatus which Heatley devised and built.'

In advance of the programme being shown Norman Heatley's widow Mercy told the Oxford Mail:

'My husband was particularly good at extracting it [penicillin] from things - I think it seemed to grow best on grapefruit... I feel sad Fleming is always named as the discoverer. I think what happened was he was always happy to talk to the press, whereas Florey wasn’t keen to talk to them and have his team disrupted, which is why Fleming received all the publicity.'

Hopefully the programme will help to set the record straight about who really deserves credit for a drug that's saved so many lives.

Breaking the Mould: The Story of Penicillin will be broadcast on BBC Four on 29 July at 9pm