27 Feb 2013

Howard Florey

To you, Ernst Chain, Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming, I will relate one of Grimm's fairy-tales, that I heard as a child. A poor student heard under an oak a wailing voice that begged to be set free. He began to dig at the root, and found there a corked bottle with a little frog in it. It was this frog that wanted so badly to be set at liberty. The student pulled the cork, and out came a mighty spirit, who by way of thanks for the help gave him a wonderful plaster. With the one side one could heal all sores; with the other one could turn iron into silver. The student thereafter performed both operations, and became the most famous physician in the whole world - perhaps also the richest.

You have dug up a wonderful plaster, too, that has healed countless sores. This achievement called for years of labour, unerring instinct, profound and wide knowledge, team-work and some luck. Your penicillin was made available to mankind during the biggest of wars; but it is unable to serve anything but peaceful purposes. It cannot kill a mouse, though it can heal a man.

You have become the most famous doctors in the whole world; but there is a difference between you and the student - you have not used that side of the plaster which made silver. We follow Alfred Nobel's intentions in giving you gold, instead of silver.

Professor A.H.T. Theorell, Director of the Department of Biochemistry at the Nobel Institute of Medicine.  Address to the laureate prior to the Nobel Prize banquet speech. 1945

We called it The Sheep Hilton, but its real name was the Howard Florey Institute, and if it weren't for the fact that it was based in the grounds of my old Alma mater, The University of Melbourne, I doubt that I would even know the name of this great Australian scientist. In fact I remember my mother telling me about him one day as we drove past and being surprised to learn of his claim to fame. When it came to the discovery of Penicillin, all I knew was Alexander Fleming.

It was South Australian Howard Florey who led the team that carried out what is arguably the most important medical research and development of the last century. He and his colleagues took Fleming’s discovery, a natural antibacterial agent that he named Penicillin, and created from it the miraculous antibiotic that began saving lives in the last years of WWII and that started the antibiotic revolution that continues to save millions of lives each year.

So who is this man whose portrait graced Australia's $50 note for 22 years (1973–95)? Who is this man whose name in immortalised in the name of the suburb of Florey in the national capital Canberra? Florey is regarded by the Australian scientific and medical community as one of its greatest scientists, and yet the average Australian barely knows his name. Why is this so?

Some say the answer lies in Florey's great humility. Apparently he once described his achievements saying, "All we did was to do some experiments and have the luck to hit on a substance with astonishing properties". Others cite his dislike of media attention - Florey always avoided the media because he disliked giving interviews. These may be so, but I but I am still confused about why we don't know more about him nowadays.

When I began researching living books for us to use in a study of Florey's life for Jemimah's Australianised AO6 I came across slim pickings indeed. Almost all the books that have been published are out of print. In the end I've settled sight unseen on The Mould In Dr Florey's Coat: The Remarkable True Story of the Penicillin Miracle by Eric Lax. It's written for adults, so it may be a mistake, but I'll give it a go when it arrives from the UK and let you know. The reviews sound like it's written in literary style at least. We're also going to watch this film:

Here is a list of other books on Florey to watch out for.  All are OOP.

Howard Florey: Miracle Maker by Kirsty Murray
Howard Florey, the man who developed penicillin by Diana Chase
Howard Florey: Making of a Great Scientist by Gwyn Macfarlane
Rise Up to Life - A Biography of Howard Walter Florey Who Made Penicillin and Gave it to the World by Lennard Bickel
Howard Florey: Penicillin and After by Trevor I. Williams


  1. Wow I knew nothing about Florey, and to consider he has been on the $50 note for so long, I'm embarrassed.

  2. Interesting. So not science oriented so had never heard of him~ & I have both a public & private school education. So go homeschooling!

  3. We can name our famous sports stars, but not our science stars! Thanks for the links - and the video looks interesting.

  4. I was aware of Florey probably because I grew up in South Australia. And of course it's a suburb in Canberra which I drive past every day.

  5. Absolutely amazing piece of history. I cannot wait to be educated myself.

  6. I should of said - I cannot wait to be educated about this part of time myself! :)

  7. There's a memorial to Florey in a lovely garden in one of the colleges in Oxford. I can't remember which one, and unfortunately that CD of photos is corrupted :( . But I remember the guide (a Polish woman who was a professor) on the free walking tour we took (on Christmas Day!) saying 'oh, you're Australian, I'll show you the memorial to... what's his name...' and we all stood around trying to remember ;) but we did remember, and see it in the end :D
    But for some reason I was trying to steal him - I thought he was Tasmanian. How embarrassing!

  8. great website. keep posting . waiting for your next update


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