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Howard Florey

A photograph of Howard Florey, c. 1960.

Portrait of Howard Florey, c. 1960. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: an23609885.

You may have never heard of Howard Florey, but his work on the development of the first penicillin-based antibiotic medicines has probably already saved your life. Because of his work in developing this infection-fighting drug, thousands of people are treated with antibiotics every day to heal infections that, less than 80 years ago, could have meant serious illness or even death.

Penicillin - an amazing mould

Howard Florey did not discover penicillin. This discovery was made by another scientist, Alexander Fleming, in 1928. His discovery followed earlier work on infections and moulds by scientists such as Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister and Ernest Duchesne.

Fleming's discovery was very important because he identified that a mould he accidentally found growing in a petrie dish on his return from a holiday had anti-biotic properties. This means that it was stopping bacteria growing. He named the mould penicillin.

Fleming, and many others, quickly realised the potential impact this could have on easing human suffering and illness. However, despite the fact that he had evidence of penicillin's ability to treat bacterial infections within a laboratory situation, its ability to do this in practice had not been tested. Although he worked hard on the problem, Fleming was unable to devise a way to get penicillin out of the petrie dish and into a form where it could be used to effectively halt infections in humans.

The boundaries of knowledge

Howard Florey was academically brilliant and when he finished school, was accepted to the University of Adelaide where he studied medicine. A few years later he was awarded a scholarship to Oxford University in England. He studied in Oxford and continued to further his research in England and the United States for many decades after.

In the late 1930s he began working with a fellow medical researcher, Ernst B Chain. Like Florey, Chain was working at Oxford University but was a specialist in the field of biochemistry. Together they decided to investigate antibacterial substances that are formed by micro-organisms. They started their research on a substance that was already known about but not fully understood - penicillin.

A photograph of Private W. G. Foster receiving penicillin injection from Lieutenant M. Wreford, 1945.

Tarakan Island, 8 July 1945. Lieutenant M Wreford, Australian Army Nursing Service (2) Giving a penicillin injection to Private W G Foster, 2/32 Infantry Battalion, Aboard 2/2 Hospital Ship SS WANGANELLA. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial.

Together with a team of researchers, Florey and Chain spent the next couple of years developing a method that allowed them to create a medicine that could be used to effectively kill harmful bacteria that caused infection, illness and death.

This was a huge undertaking and one that pushed the boundaries of science as it was known in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Infections - the horrible reality

Howard Florey was born in Adelaide in 1898. He grew up in a time when it was common for people to die of a bacterial infection. In Florey's childhood, bacterial infections were very easy to get. If you cut yourself or were injured in some way, there was no medical treatment available if the wound became infected.

Untreated bacterial infections occur when foreign bacteria multiply at a rapid rate and the body's natural defence mechanisms, white blood cells, can't contain the 'bad' bacteria. Before doctors were able to treat infections with antibiotics, this was a very serious illness. As a result, many millions of people died from infection. People greatly feared infections because there was nothing anyone could do to help if they made you very ill.

As general hygiene was poorer then than it is today, the likelihood of even the smallest cut becoming infected was high. These days, small cuts and scrapes are easily treated as we know a lot about infection control - washing our hands, applying antiseptic lotion and, if necessary, antibiotics are all used to minimise the incidence of life-threatening bacterial infections.

Photographs of a young girl with blood poisoning, 1942.

Young girl with blood poisoning, 1942. Image courtesy of Australian National University.

The illustration at the left shows just how awful untreated bacterial infections are (in this case, blood poisoning). The pictures were taken in 1942 when the threat of dying from a bacterial infection was still very real. Image numbers 1 and 2 show a young girl who appears very sick indeed, yet just a few days later when photos 3 and 4 were taken, she seems a lot better. In the final two photos, she is completely cured. This amazing recovery was possible because she was treated with the medicine developed by Florey and Chain which, without any major side-effects, safely destroyed the harmful bacteria that were making her sick.

Official Recognition

In 1945, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to three scientists: Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey. The following is a quote from the presentation speech made when their Prize was presented that year in Stockholm and refers to the impressive results the new drug had when it was first tested:

'Many cases were reported of patients who had been considered doomed or had suffered from illness for a long period without improvement, although all the resources of modern medicine had been tried, but in which the penicillin treatment had led to recoveries which not infrequently seemed miraculous.'

A photograph of the back of the Nobel Medal for Physiology or Medicine.

The back of the Nobel Medal for Physiology or Medicine, representing the Genius of Medicine holding an open book in her lap, collecting the water pouring out from a rock in order to quench a sick girl's thirst. Image courtesy of the Nobel Prize Organisation.

Although he contributed to a discovery that greatly alleviated human misery and suffering, Howard Florey was a humble person and did not want or expect attention and gratitude for his work. Indeed, he later expressed concern that the discovery of penicillin and the drug he developed with Chain was too effective, resulting in a population boom the earth may not be able to cope with.

Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were recognised all over the world for their amazing work. In 1944, Florey was knighted and in the years that followed, received numerous awards relating to their discovery.

His work in the field of medical research continued and in 1960 he became the first Australian President of the Royal Society. Five years later the Queen made him Lord Florey and he was offered, and accepted, the role of Chancellor of the Australian National University.

Lord Howard Florey died on February 21, 1968. He is commemorated in the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, a world-leading medical research centre located in Melbourne, Australia.>

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Howard Florey and penicillin

Last updated: 4 March 2016
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