The Story of Penicillin and an Australian Scientist

To write about the intriguing story of the discovery of penicillin suddenly came to me this morning because yesterday (6th Aug. 2021) was the 140 anniversary of the day on which Sir Alexander Fleming was born. His story is well known as one can find it by searching Google or Baidu. However, the story I am going to tell here is about the part played by an Australian scientist, Howard Walter Florey, one of several famous alumni of The University of Adelaide.

Most people know how Alexander Fleming happened to discover the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin, however very few people know of the vital role Baron Howard Walter Florey played in the story.

The culmination of his endeavours was that he became a life peer on 4 February 1965 as Baron Florey, of Adelaide in the State of South Australia and Commonwealth of Australia and of Marston in the County of Oxford, whose fame was recognised in 1945, the year in which Howard Walter Florey shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Ernst Boris Chain and Alexander Fleming. With this people may begin to be curious about these honours for Howard Walter Florey and want to know why he shared the Noble Prize and was honoured with a higher honour than the knighthood awarded to the penicillin discoverer, Alexander Fleming.

It all began on 3rd September 1928 when Alexander Fleming first realised the potential of the fungus that accidentally occurred in his culture plates. This was an insightful observation and a historic moment though it took 12 years for Alexander Fleming’s great discovery was being appreciated and valued.

The journey of scientific discovery and research development takes painstaking follow up and validation and is rarely done at the stroke of a pen. In the beginning, his seminar on the discovery was ignored by peers in medical research meetings, and he faced the difficulty of producing penicillin in large amounts to isolate the main compound. But Alexander Fleming stoically believed this fungus would be useful, even though medical peers offered no support for his belief on its possible future value for the prevention and treatment of human infections.

The turning point came in 1940 and 1941 when Alexander Fleming met Howard Walter Florey, Ernst Boris Chain, Norman Heatley and Edward Abraham after Ernst Boris Chain and Edward Abraham identified the structure of penicillin. These scientists explored various methods of purifying penicillin to become an effective stable form. In 1941, Howard Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain treated their first patient.

So following the discovery of penicillin, several scientists made great contributions to the formulating compound, penicillin. While Alexander Flaming was the first person who found the mould of penicillin, and after 12 years, Edward Abraham was the first person who proposed the correct structure of penicillin, and Norman Heatley initially suggested producing stable penicillin by making the active ingredient of penicillin dissolvable in water by changing its acidity, and Howard Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain first transformed the laboratory curiosity into a practical drug, and developed it into a useful treatment. Since then, all their efforts allowed the production of penicillin on an industrial scale, and thereby saving millions of lives in World War II and after.

This is the story of penicillin and Howard Walter Florey. He was born in Malvern in Adelaide, the suburb nearby the Waite Campus of The University of Adelaide where I spent nearly 11 years studying, working and living. His education in Adelaide began at Scotch College primary school, where I worked from 2010 to 2015, in the Scientists in School Program as a volunteer with Mrs Debra William, teaching and demonstrating scientific knowledge to the children. He then went to St Peter's College high school, and then studied medicine at the University of Adelaide from 1917 to 1921. His study at The University of Adelaide was entirely paid by a state scholarship he had achieved. Incidentally, my PhD study was paid by the University’s full scholarship when I pursued my academic development in Adelaide.

After completing his study at the University of Adelaide, he became a Rhodes Scholar to continue his study in Oxford. In 1925, then he left Oxford to attend the University of Cambridge, during which time he won a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation and studied in the United States for ten months. In 1927, after he was awarded the degree of PhD from Cambridge, Florey was appointed to the Joseph Hunter Chair of Pathology at the University of Sheffield in 1932. In 1935 he returned to Oxford, as Professor of Pathology and Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, leading a team of researchers, working with Ernst Boris Chain, Norman Heatley and Edward Abraham. And the story of his collaboration with the team working with Alexander Fleming on penicillin is one of the triumphs of scientific research.

Howard Walter Florey is regarded by the Australian scientific and medical community as one of its greatest figures. Sir Robert Menzies, a former Australia's Prime Minister from 1939 to 1941 and from 1949 to 1966, said, “In terms of world well-being, Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia.”In Australia, many institutes have buildings named after him. Florey lecture theatre in the University of Adelaide's medical school is named in his honour.

Written by Adelaide Ying Zhu on 7th Aug. 2021


今早突然想写一篇这样一篇文章,是因为昨天是青霉素诞生之父亚历山大·弗莱明爵士(Sir Alexander Fleming)诞生140周年。亚历山大·弗莱明爵士发现青霉素的有趣的故事几乎家喻户晓,即使不知道,随便一搜百度也可以了解到。但是,我今天在这里要讲的故事是青霉素和澳大利亚科学家的故事,这位科学家就是霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里(Howard Walter Florey),我们阿德莱德大学的著名的几位校友之一。


我用倒叙的来讲述这个故事吧,那就从1965年2月4日霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里最荣耀的日子说起,这一天,他被英国女王封为非承袭制终身贵族,授予澳大利亚联邦届南澳大利亚阿德莱德弗洛里男爵(Baron Florey of Adelaide),以及牛津郡马斯顿弗洛里男爵(Baron Florey of Marston)。然后接着追溯到1945年,他与恩斯特·鲍里斯·钱恩(Ernst Boris Chain)和亚历山大·弗莱明共同获得诺贝尔生理学或医学奖。你也许开始好奇霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里有如此高的荣誉加身,想知道他何以通亚历山大·弗莱明在诺奖上平起平坐,而且在女王的封爵上高于亚历山大·弗莱明爵士。(以后有机会专门写一篇关于英国的爵位文章。)

好,现在我们可以跳到1928年9月3日,这一天正是亚历山大·弗莱明休假回到实验室后发现了培养皿里意外出现的,后来被他命名为青霉素的菌群。这一时间这一事件是重要的历史时刻也是重要的历史事件。然而,亚历山大·弗莱明的重要发现在十二年之后才受到同行的重视和认可。科学发现和研究的道路从来都是曲折的,从来没有一蹴而就的科研成果。开始的时候,在医学学术会议上,亚历山大·弗莱明谈他的发现并没有得到同行的关注,接下来,他受困于不能产出大量的青霉素以及从菌落中分离出主要的化合物。但是,他坚信他所观察到的菌落一定会有用的,尽管到了1936年医药界同仁并不赞同他说的这些菌群在将来对防止和治疗病人的感染会有价值。事情出现转机是在1940年和1941年,在1940年恩斯特·鲍里斯·钱恩和爱德华·亚伯拉罕(Edward Abraham)鉴定出青霉素的化学结构之后,亚历山大·弗莱明造访了这一团队研究人员,包括霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里,恩斯特·鲍里斯·钱恩,诺曼·哈特利(Norman Heatley) 和爱德华·亚伯拉罕。几位科学家在一起讨论并探究了纯化青霉素为相对稳定的形式的实验方法。同年的1941年,霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里,恩斯特·鲍里斯·钱恩用青霉素治疗他们的第一位病人。


这就是青霉素与霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里的故事。霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里生于阿德莱德的马尔文区(Malvern),这一社区就在我的母校阿德莱德大学怀特校区(The Waite Campus)不远处,我在这一校区学习、工作、生活了11年。霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里在阿德莱德读了斯考特小学(Scotch College primary school)。(说起斯考特小学,我与这个学校也有渊源,从2010年到2015年的五年间,我作为澳大利亚联邦科学与产业研究机构CSIRO组织的“科学家进校园 Scientists in Schools”项目的志愿者,与斯考特小学的戴博拉·威廉女士一起工作了五年,为她的学生们讲科普知识,演示简单的科学现象。)霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里读完小学又进入阿德莱德最好的中学圣彼得中学(Peter’s College)学习,中学毕业后,在1921年至1924年期间,他获得南澳洲全奖奖学金进入阿德莱德大学学习医学。(我当时在阿德莱德求学攻读博士学位的时候,获得的是阿德莱德大学的全额奖学金。)结束了在阿德莱德大学的学习,霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里作为罗德学者(Rhodes Scholar)到牛津大学深造。(罗德学者奖学金是由英国矿业大亨塞西尔·罗德Cecil Rhodes设立的专供英国境外的优秀学者到牛津大学学习的一项奖学金。在阿德莱德大学建校147年的历史中,只有108位罗德学者,可见此奖学金的分量。)在获得牛津大学的学士学位后,1925年,霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里又进入剑桥大学,在剑桥大学期间获得美国洛克菲勒基金会资助到美国访学,于1927年获得博士学位。1932年被谢菲尔德大学(The University of Sheffield)聘为病理学院的约瑟夫亨特首席科学家(Joseph Hunter Chair),1935年又回到牛津大学任病理学教授,林肯学院研究员(Lincoln College),并作为学术带头人与恩斯特·鲍里斯·钱恩,诺曼·哈特利和爱德华·亚伯拉罕一起工作。而后这个研究团队与亚历山大·弗莱明一起对青霉素的研究工作,正如你们前面了解的。

霍华德·沃尔特·弗洛里被澳大利亚科学与医学学者公认为最杰出的人物。澳大利亚两任总理(从1939到1941,从1949到1966)罗伯特·曼茨爵士(Sir Robert Menzies)说过:“以世界人民的福祉角度来看,弗洛里是诞生于澳大利亚这片土地上最重要的人。”在澳大利亚,很多学术研究机构中都有以弗洛里命名的建筑物,我们阿德莱德大学的医学院就有弗洛里讲堂(Florey lecture theatre)。


阿德莱德·朱莹(Adelaide Ying Zhu), 2021年8月7日星期六

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