Howard Florey- Memories of a great Australian medical man

Aug 1, 1998Article, History

Title Memories of a great Australian medical man
Publication Status 3d (Australian Doctor 25 September 1998) Dr J H Leavesley

Member of the Australian Society for the History of Medicine &

President of the Western Australian Medical Museum


Review Status SR
Copyright Copyright of this article is vested in the author. Permissions for reprints or republications must be obtained in writing from the copyright holder. This article has been republished here with permission from the copyright holder.

A century after Howard Florey’s birth, his contribution to modern medicine has not been forgotten.

The heights by great men reached and kept

Were not attained by sudden flight,

But they, while their companions slept,

Were toiling upwards in the night.

– Longfellow

This week marked the centenary of the birth of one of Australia’s most famous medical sons – Howard Florey.

Born in Adelaide on 24 September 1898, Florey will always be associated with the commercial development of penicillin.

This achievement gained him the Nobel prize, a Knighthood, presidency of a royal society, a life peerage and deserved international fame.

Howard Walter Florey was the youngest of five children and the only boy. He grew up in the Adelaide suburb of Fullarton and attended St Peter’s Collegiate School, where he acquired the nickname Floss, a sobriquet which stuck with him throughout his life.

The portents for brilliance were evident early, and he was a regular prize winner in most subjects except mathematics. He went on to the University of Adelaide Medical School in 1917 and won a Rhodes scholarship in 1921. To take this up, Florey made his way to England as a ship’s doctor. He never came back to live in Australia.

His main interest at Oxford was pathology and after leaving he held several posts in the US, Cambridge and London. Between 1931 and 1935 he held the chair of pathology at Sheffield.

He then returned to Oxford as the professor of pathology where, by his forthright way of cutting red tape, he was called “a bushranger of research”.

During the 1920s Florey investigated naturally occurring antibacterial agents and came across a paper written by Alexander Fleming of St Mary’s Medical School, London, on the antibacterial effects of a mould called penicillin.

In 1928, Fleming was experimenting with bacteria of the staphylococcus group. He had left some plates exposed near his window (not while he had gone fly fishing in his native Scotland, as is popularly supposed) and by chance a mould, later identified as Penicillium notatum had wafted in, landed on the plate, and the adjacent colonies of bacteria had been killed.

The effect was first noticed by Westling in Stockholm in 1911 but not followed up. Fleming himself did not pursue his observations, and it was regarded as of no great practical importance.

In 1931, Clutterbuck et al, working in England, could not get the mould into a pure form, so abandoned the attempt and missed out on a place in history.

That accolade was to belong to Howard Florey and his associates, including his wife Ethel Florey and Dr Ernest Chain, a chemist, when they took a second look in 1939.

It was slow and difficult work to extract the active factor, and it took 18 months to produce 100mg of the pure compound.

Controlled experiments were carried out on mice infected with streptococci, and it was shown that even very dilute penicillin (the new name) was able to destroy the bacteria. Further, it was non-toxic and effective in the presence of blood or pus. As digestive juices destroyed, it had to be injected.

Then came the denouement – testing it on humans. This took place in 1940-41, and the results were published in August 1941. The effects were said to be promising, but lack of material caused the premature termination of treatment in several cases.

But the far-reaching ramifications of the concept, especially in infected war wounds, attracted government interest in the US. Money was poured into the project, allowing for swift development.

It would be ungenerous to think the prime motives were not so much altruistic as towards getting soldiers back in the line. But for once a government agency had got it right.

With the increased supply of the drug, many cases were treated. Soldiers infected with septicaemia, meningitis, gas gangrene and syphilis had been considered doomed, but the effects of penicillin seemed to be miraculous. On the other hand, the negative effect of penicillin on disease such as tuberculosis, poliomyelitis and typhoid sounded a cautionary note.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1945, Florey, together with Fleming and Chain, received the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine. The citation pointed out that their work “has shown us the fundamental importance of basic research” and “affords a splendid example of different scientific methods co-operating for a common purpose”.

After the war, Florey continued to receive acclaim from his scientific colleagues and honours from various grateful governments. He received honorary degrees from 17 universities and was approached to help plan the establishment of a medical research school in the ACT. Although he applauded the idea and applied himself to the task, when offered a chair he found it difficult to make a break from Oxford and declined.

He was knighted during World War II, and in 1965 the British establishment felt his analytical mind should be used in the House of Lords and he was created a life peer. He styled himself Baron Florey of Adelaide.

In 1960, he was elected the first Australian president of the Royal Society of London (a predecessor had been Sir Isaac Newton) and was known as “the bushranger president”. He was chancellor of the Australian National University from 1964-66, although he remained in England.

Florey was regarded as uncompromising, blunt, prickly, tense, remote and driven by burning ambition. He displayed great personal integrity, but did not suffer fools gladly, was scathing of pretence and could be destructive in criticism. Regrettably, Florey had an unhappy relationship with his wife Ethel, but they never parted. They had two children, Paquita and Charles.

Lady Florey died in 1966, and in June 1967 Lord Florey married Dr Margaret Jennings, his long-time colleague. He died suddenly eight months later aged 69.