Dunn School's Chris Tang tells Penicillin story in Radio Four interview

Professor Chris Tang from the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology discussed the significance of the Dunn School in the development of penicillin – the ‘wonder drug’ against infectious disease - during a panel interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’ on 9 June.

Professor Tang joined Laura Piddock from the University of Birmingham and Steve Jones from University College, London to discuss the history of the development of the antibacterial drug with broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

The drug has led to combatting infectious disease worldwide and resulted in a Nobel Prize in 1945 for Fleming, Florey and Chain, the scientists involved in its discovery and development.

Although Alexander Fleming from St Mary’s hospital, London, first discovered penicillin in 1928 he failed to recognise its significance as a treatment for systemic infection and believed its instability and the challenges around purification made it unsuitable for development.   

Driven by the need to address infection related deaths in World War II it was the Dunn School’s Florey and Chain that did recognise it’s full potential, after reading Florey’s paper ten years later, and set about developing penicillin into a viable medicine.

Chris and colleagues trace the history of the development of the wonder drug from a cottage industry at the Dunn School to big pharma industrial production in the US.

The story involves other key players including scientist and ‘master craftsman’ Norman Heatley, who in the face of World War II shortages fashioned a purification system out of a bookcase, and the structural biologist Dorothy Hodgkin who solved the molecular structure of penicillin giving the opportunity for further modification of the drug.

The programme ends by considering the spectre of penicillin resistance and a call from Professor Tang for the pharmaceutical industry to reverse dwindling investment in antibacterial development.