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Howard Florey (1898-1968) and Ernst Chain (1906-79)

Florey was born in Australia and Chain in Germany, and they worked together at Oxford University doing research into the production of penicillin. In 1945, Florey and Chain shared a Nobel Prize with Alexander Fleming.

Penicillin is one of the most important discoveries in medicine. However, it was not until ten years after its discovery by Alexander Fleming in 1928 that the benefits of penicillin were actually realised. Howard Florey, a pathologist, and Ernst Chain, a biochemist, and their colleagues were able to produce enough penicillin in 1940 to experiment with its effects on mice. They tried to persuade British drug companies to manufacture penicillin, but the Second World War (1939-45) meant that companies preoccupied with wartime production could not produce enough.

Florey and Chain turned their department at Oxford into a penicillin factory. Trials of penicillin were held at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford from 1941 and were successful. Later that year Florey went to the United States to try and get some assistance with manufacturing penicillin on a large scale. A course of action which proved to be highly successful. Later, in 1943, Florey went to North Africa with neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns to find out how a small amount of penicillin could be used to treat war wounds most effectively. Many soldiers’ lives were saved by injections of penicillin.

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Bibliography

W F Bynum and H Bynum (eds), Dictionary of Medical Biography (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2005)

Glossary:

Pathology

The branch of medicine concerned with disease, especially its structure and effects on the body.

Biochemistry

The study of the chemistry of living organisms and the reactions and methods for identifying their chemical substances.

Neurosurgery

A surgical speciality that treats diseases and disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system.