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Ep 149 - The Penicillin partnership - Howard Florey, Norman Heatley and a wonder drug.

Norman Heatley with his cat. Image originally from

After being intrigued at a visit to the National Portrait Gallery Alex went in search of the penicillin girls. Only to find a whole team of scientists, and one in particular who deserves more credit in the story of penicillin. Norman Heatley might not be a name that springs to mind - until you've listen to the pod! Here he is, later in life, with something that looks just like the water condensing tank from Alex's dryer.

Let's back track a little.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Ernst Chain headed the lab that made it usable, supported by Howard Florey. And here they all are, all pictured at their workplaces, images from the Imperial War Museum collection:

Alexander Fleming

Ernst Chain

Howard Florey

Norman Heatley - who worked for Florey and Chain, has been described as " the practical genius who invented the tools and techniques which made it possible to extract and purify penicillin in a large enough quantity to reliably use on humans."

Fleming's petrie dish with penicillum mould on the left

Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, legend has it, by accident. Certainly we could call it a lucky chance. The mould growing on a petrie dish seemed to be killing the bacteria nearby. But after an initial flurry of excitement, no one found a way to use it. Ernst Chain's team in Oxford only started work on it in 1939. It was unstable and difficult to isolate. Yet they started human clinical trials in 1941. From cake tins to bedpans they used any container they could in the early days. Until Heatley refined the perfect shape. As we see him holding in the picture above.

A ceramic vessel with a spout, that could be stacked. Seen again here, in the picture with two of the penicillin girls - women who were recruited to harvest the mould.

Penicillin being grown and harvested

The "girls" were Ruth Callow, Claire Inayat, Betty Cooke, Peggy Gardner, Megan Lancaster and Patricia McKegney. Unfortunately their protective masks make it hard to identify which two are in this picture. The PPE they are wearing - just one of the parallels with the covid era that became apparent while we chatted. There is precious little other information available about the penicillin girls. Luckily for us, Heatley's energy, pragmatism and inventiveness make a good story in themselves. And there were many other members of the team, and folks who worked alongside or in other institutions around the world. Not least:

Margeret Jennings
Ethel Florey

Once again, listen to find out their contribution and their personal connections with the rest of the team......

And if anyone thinks they've got something that looks like one of the earthenware culture vessels lying around. Consider this:

Lot sold by Christies in 2004

Property from the Estate of Dr Norman Heatley. (Proceeds to be donated to The Norman Heatley Memorial Fund, The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford.) Christies auctioned the above in 2004 for £19,120. And while we can't all have one of those, we might manage one of these:

Penicillium mould on Orange by Gailhampshire CC BY 2.0

Leave an orange out long enough and you might get lucky. Penicillin and the antibiotics that followed it have saved countless lives, and made everyday life much safer. Remember though - penicillin is mould, but not all mould is penicillin.

As ever, get in touch with comments, queries and suggestions.

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