Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat
Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle
Henry Holt & Company, 2005
Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in his London laboratory
in 1928 and its eventual development as the first antibiotic by a
team at Oxford University headed by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in
1942 led to the introduction of the most important family of drugs
of the twentieth century.
Yet credit for penicillin is largely misplaced. Neither Fleming nor
Florey and his associates ever made real money from their
achievements; instead it was the American labs that won patents on
penicillin's manufacture and drew royalties from its sale. Why this
happened, why it took fourteen years to develop penicillin, and how
it was finally done is a fascinating story of quirky individuals,
missed opportunities, medical prejudice, brilliant science,
shoestring research, wartime pressures, misplaced modesty, conflicts
between mentors and their protégés, and the passage of medicine from
one era to the next.
From The New York Times
Admirable, superbly researched . . . perhaps the most exciting tale
of science since the apple dropped on Newton's head.
By reminding us of the stellar contributions to that same story that
were made by the Oxford University team of Howard Florey, Ernest
Chain and a hitherto utterly anonymous chemist named Norman Heatley,
Mr. Lax has performed a service to science of which he should be
proud and all must be grateful. - Simon Winchester
From Publishers Weekly
This book sets out to correct the misapprehension that Alexander
Fleming, the first scientist to discover the antibacterial
properties of the mold Penicillium notatum, was also responsible for
developing the wonder drug that saved countless lives and ushered in
the era of modern medicine. Although Fleming coined the term
"penicillin," his tentative research on the mold produced few
valuable results and was prematurely abandoned. More than a decade
later, in 1940, a pathology team at Oxford University-headed by
Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and the now almost forgotten Norman
Heatley-resumed Fleming's preliminary work and eventually developed
the world's first viable antibiotic. Although Fleming, Florey and
Chain shared a Nobel Prize in 1945 for their revolutionary work,
accolades and media attention were disproportionately bestowed on
Fleming, and in the popular imagination he was transformed into the
sole creator of penicillin. Lax (Woody Allen; Life and Death on 10
West) has written a commendable account of this historical
oversight, conveying the thrill of discovery during the upheaval of
WWII and skillfully translating the abstruse technicalities of lab
work and medical jargon into enjoyable prose. Yet this book also
shows that monumental discoveries are not always born of monumental
stories, and the narrative contains trivial details and petty
grievances that made up these scientists' circumscribed lives. Lax's
treatment is disciplined and focused, but it would have been
improved by a broader historical sweep and more involved discussions
of penicillin's impact on the pharmaceutical industry. 18-page b&w
photo insert not seen by PW.
Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From Library Journal
Lax, whose previous Life and Death on 10 West and Woody Allen: A
Biography drew favorable reviews, turns his attention to the
fascinating story surrounding the development of penicillin during
World War II. Many people believe that Alexander Fleming was solely
responsible for penicillin, yet he was only one of the players.
Though Fleming initially reported the discovery of penicillin,
several Oxford scientists, led by Howard Florey, worked on
isolating, purifying, producing, and testing the antibiotic on
humans. Eventually, Florey and his colleague Ernst Chain shared the
Nobel prize with Fleming. Relying heavily on interviews and personal
papers, Lax consistently illustrates the major impact of the war on
their research-the antibiotic was desperately needed, yet they were
stymied by a constant lack of funding and the threat of enemy
soldiers destroying their work. Unlike previous Florey biographies
or historical accounts of penicillin, Lax focuses on the early
stages of research as seen through the eyes of the Oxford
scientists. This fast-paced book is recommended for all public
libraries and history of medicine collections.
Tina Neville, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib.
Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From Kirkus Reviews
Veteran journalist and author Lax (Woody Allen, 1991, etc.) takes a
revealing look back at the time when world-altering science was done
on a shoestring, bringing to brilliant life the story of the first
great antibiotic. While Alexander Fleming is the name most often
associated with penicillin, it was the Oxford team of Howard Florey,
Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley, the author reminds us, that turned
Fleming's 1928 discovery of the potent mold into a life-saving
miracle drug while working under Spartan and dangerous conditions.
Responding to the threat of an imminent Nazi invasion, Heatley
proposed that in case they were forced to abandon their work and
flee, they preserve the mold spores by rubbing some into the fabric
of their clothing. (Hence the title.) Lax first captures the
personalities of each of these four men and then moves on to
Florey's efforts to scrounge together the funds for his team's work.
An initial grant from the Medical Research Council for materials was
£25, the equivalent then of about $100. Funds from the Rockefeller
Foundation were more generous, but ingenuity and improvisation
remained essential. Heatley cobbled together an apparatus to extract
penicillin from mold juice using glass tubing, assorted pumps,
copper coils, colored warning lights, and even an old doorbell. The
meager amounts of penicillin the team was able to produce showed
therapeutic potential, but larger quantities were needed to run the
necessary clinical trials. Unable to interest British pharmaceutical
companies, they turned to the US, offering to share all their
knowledge of how to produce penicillin in return for a supply.
Florey and Heatley's dog-and-pony show in the US, the American
rolein the penicillin story, Fleming's public behavior when the news
of penicillin's clinical value became known, the Nobel Prize
expectations of those involved all make for fascinating reading.
Even sex rears its intriguing head, with both Florey's wife and
mistress getting into the act. Informative and thoroughly enjoyable