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 role in 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 science history.