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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On the implementation of penicillin - Howard Florey, Edward Abraham, Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley and others

I recently read The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The story of the Penicillin Miracle, by Eric Lax.

The book was a thorough study of the history of the discovery and implementation of penicillin, with World War II as a significant part of the historical background. The title comes from the idea of some of the scientists involved, that, if Britain were about to be conquered by the Germans, they could rub spores from the mold in their coats, and go to the U. S. to continue their work. It never came to that.

Penicillin is, or was, an important antibiotic. It was the first one used on a systematic basis, to treat infections. Although not used so much now, because bacteria have become resistant to it, and some people have developed allergies to it, derivatives of penicillin are still in use. One of my family members is currently taking amoxicillin.

There are several features of the book, and the story it tells, that are more broadly applicable.

1) Lax points out that many of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century were done on very small budgets, often as a sort of hobby by the person doing the work. That was true of the isolation and production of penicillin. Leeuwenhoek, the builder of the first microscope, was, of course, not a professional microscopist -- there were no such people.

2) The account of scientific discoveries (or other notable events) that is transmitted is often seriously distorted. That is, according to Lax, true of the original discovery of the mold that produced the first usable penicillin, by Alexander Fleming. I have often heard that Fleming discovered the bacteria-killing properties of the mold by accident. Lax indicates that that isn't exactly true. He was investigating. Fleming stopped working on penicillin, and Howard Florey, and others, took it up, but Fleming got much of the credit for the development of the drug. Florey and his group, with little or no help from Fleming, did that.

Eventually, Fleming, Florey, and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on penicillin. Edward Abraham and Norman Heatley also made significant contributions, but they were not so honored. Eventually, they were honored in other ways. There were no female heads of laboratories, and they didn't make any ground-breaking contributions, but there were many women workers, some of whom worked at considerable risk, breathing in dangerous materials, and working long hours.

3) Scientific discoveries are often not made freely available to others. There's a lot in the book about patents, and it is clear that the British scientists involved, and, eventually, others, believed that penicillin should be treated as a military secret, and they would have been horrified if it had been made available to the Germans.

Thanks for reading. I hope you don't need to take an antibiotic.

2 comments:

FancyHorse said...

Wow, I had no idea that it wasn't Fleming!

It seems it was discovered shortly before I was born. I grew up in a time when penicillin was considered a "wonder drug". My pediatrician used it liberally on me on on all his patients, I'm sure. He made house calls, and I screamed and hollered when he opened his black bag and got out that hypodermic needle!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. It was, at one time, very commonly used. Unfortunately, that led to bacterial resistance.