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Innovations: Penicillin

Howard Florey was born in Adelaide in 1898. He studied medicine at Adelaide, Oxford and Cambridge Universities. After taking up teaching positions at Cambridge and Sheffield Universities, Florey returned to Oxford as professor of pathology in 1935. It was here that Florey began working on isolating and purifying penicillin for human use with Ernst Chain.

Penicillin was the first successful antibiotic against bacterial infections. It had been discovered by Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming in 1928. Fleming was working at St. Mary's Hospital in London and discovered a substance, which he named 'penicillin' after the mould Penicillium notatum, that inhibited the growth of the bacteria staphylococci. Fleming experimented a little with his new discovery, but found it unstable and could not purify it. He did not realise its potential in fighting bacterial infection in humans.

A young doctor, CG Paine, who studied under Fleming at St. Mary's, had some success in treating eye infections in human patients in the early 1930s. However, Paine did not publish anything relating to his work with penicillin.

Systematic study of the antibacterial properties of penicillin began when Ernst Chain, a chemist working on antibacterial agents at Oxford in 1938, discovered one of Fleming's reports about penicillin. He and Florey decided that they should investigate the uses of penicillin further. Florey, Chain and their Oxford team successfully demonstrated the medicinal value of penicillin first in animals and then in human studies. By this time, the Second World War had broken out and the team was also keen to develop methods to mass-produce penicillin.

In 1943, Florey went to North Africa to begin trials of penicillin on wounded Allied soldiers. By the end of the war, penicillin was being mass-produced in the United States and was used regularly to treat war wounds saving many lives. In Australia both the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in Melbourne and the South Australian company FH Faulding & Co. Ltd. decided to manufacture penicillin for the domestic market, as supplies from Britain and the United States were inadequate. The CSL was far more successful in this endeavour because, being a government agency, it was informed of the latest developments in technique which were shared on an inter-governmental basis. In Adelaide Faulding's laboratory team relied on using the basic methods established by Florey and his group. In September 1944, Florey visited the Faulding laboratory to view their penicillin production.

Florey and Fleming were both knighted in 1944 and Florey, Chain and Fleming jointly won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 for their pioneering work with penicillin. Florey was made Baron Florey of Adelaide and Marston in 1965.

Today, penicillin is still one of our most valuable antibiotics and continues to save lives around the world.

Authority on penicillin : Sir H. Florey in New Guinea
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Lord Florey: Story of historic research
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