THE LIFE OF ERNST CHAIN: Penicillin and Beyond by Ronald W. Clark

THE LIFE OF ERNST CHAIN: Penicillin and Beyond

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The life of the feisty German Jew who, along with Howard Florey, moved Fleming's mold from laboratory curiosity to lifesaving drug. Biographers never cease to be fascinated by the quirks of fate and the ill-matched personalities that are the leading characters in the penicillin story. Fortunately, recent accounts have been more accurate and evenhanded than those appearing after WW II. Clark's is in the new tradition. He presents a well-documented narrative that neither deifies nor apologizes. Chain was born in Berlin in 1906 and grew up in an environment of Jewish intellectualism and socialism--a combination that led to the need to emigrate by 1933. By then, Chain had already earned a doctorate for his studies of enzymes and affirmed that his abiding interest was ""the study of biological phenomena which could be explained in terms of the action of well-defined chemical substances, and the structures and mode of action of these substances."" Thus he was a pioneering biochemist, a man far ahead of his time who predicted that many substances would be found in nature that could profoundly affect the metabolism of living cells. Not just penicillin, but a ""tremendous virgin field"" was out there. Those remarks came later, of course. Chain's odyssey took him from Berlin to Florey's pathology laboratory in Oxford and the beginning of a long and stormy relationship (though not without mutual respect). Chain clearly did not fit the Oxbridgian mold of tennis-playing politesse. Not only was he quick to react to real or suggested anti-Semitism, he minced no words. Nevertheless, the world of science and the art of healing were the gainers from the Florey-Chain collaboration (which was not originally aimed at saving lives, but because a study of Fleming's mold ""held great scientific interest""). Clark goes on to summarize the fund-raising schemes Chain devised to support the research, the effects of the war, the trips to America to engage American interest and know-how (Chain was not allowed to go and was doubly furious that the British also gave up patent rights to penicillin). The latter half of Chain's life--the shared Nobel prize, the move to Rome to found an institute, the return to a Chair at Imperial College in London--are tales of well-deserved glory which did not seriously mellow him. Chain was clearly a passionate man--about science, music, Judaism, politics--but not exactly lovable. Clark's portrayal will serve scholars in supplying yet another part of the penicillin picture.

Pub Date: April 28th, 1986
Publisher: St. Martin's