Brian Wimborne profiles Howard Florey.
Millions of people owe an enormous debt to Howard Florey, who developed penicillin and whose achievements have been likened to those of Jenner, Pasteur and Lister. He was also a founder and chancellor of ANU, yet there are no roads or buildings named after him, nor a statue on campus. His only memorials are a tapestry at University House and a lecture theatre named after him.
Howard Walter Florey was born in Adelaide in 1898. The only son of a bootmaker, he was educated at St Peter’s College (dux 1916) and Adelaide University, from which he graduated in medicine. Awarded a Rhodes scholarship, he entered Oxford University where he worked in the laboratory of Nobel Prize laureate, Sir Charles Sherrington. It was Sherrington who stimulated Florey’s interest in experimental pathology and, over the next few years, Florey held positions at Cambridge and Sheffield universities before returning to Oxford as Professor of Pathology. He remained there for the next 27 years.
Florey’s laboratory was under equipped and poorly financed but, with the help of the Medical Research Council and the Rockefeller Foundation, it became one of the best equipped laboratories in England, if not the world. Despite his interests in lymphocytes and the cause of atheromatosis, he is best remembered for his work with penicillin. Although discovered by Alexander Fleming, this drug was developed by Florey into the most important therapeutic innovation of the 20th century. Florey hardly knew Fleming and relations between the two were not good because of Fleming’s belief that he had not received adequate credit for his discovery. Florey, unassuming as always, put it down to luck that, of the many anti-bacterial substances he could have chosen to work on, he selected penicillin, which, unlike most antibiotics, is not poisonous to human beings and other higher animals.
Penicillin was first tested on a human in February 1941. With only a small quantity of the antibiotic available, it was decided to use it on a man suffering from blood poisoning and on the point of death. Within 24 hours the patient showed a remarkable improvement and further injections were given. His improvement continued, but Florey’s stock of penicillin was soon exhausted and the patient died. Florey decided not to treat any more cases until adequate supplies of penicillin were available. When eventually two more patients were treated, both recovered and penicillin’s miraculous properties as an antibiotic for humans were demonstrated convincingly.
In 1945 Florey, together with Ernest Chain and Alexander Fleming, shared the Nobel Prize for medicine. Florey always emphasised the serendipitous nature of his research and pointed out that the development of penicillin was a team effort. In 1965 he was created Baron Florey of Adelaide and Marston.
But Florey should also be remembered for his part in founding the ANU, and his role as Chancellor from 1965 to 1968, the year of his death. His life is well summed up by Sir Peter Medawar, who wrote, “He devoted the more important part of his professional life to a single wholly admirable purpose which he pursued until he achieved it, showing, in spite of many setbacks and rebuffs, the magnanimity that is the minimal entry qualification for being considered ‘great’”.