Chain, Sir Ernest Boris

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CHAIN, SIR ERNEST BORIS (1906–1979), British biochemist and Nobel laureate for his role in the discovery of penicillin. He was born in Berlin and obtained doctorates at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin in 1930 and at Cambridge University in 1935. He worked at the Pathological Institute of the Charité Hospital in Berlin until Hitler came to power in Germany. In 1933 he began work at Cambridge, and in 1935 went to the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford, to work with professor (later Lord) Florey. In 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the antibacterial powers of the mold from which penicillin was subsequently derived. In 1938 Chain and Florey collaborated on a systematic study of antibacterial substances, including Fleming's mold. They were able to prove that the product they extracted from his mold was effective, not only on infected laboratory animals but also on a London policeman dying of a blood infection, and on a boy with a streptococcal infection that would otherwise have been fatal. Industrial development of penicillin was impossible in England at the time because of the concentration on the war effort, but three American companies, Pfizer, Merck, and Squibb, undertook to mass-produce penicillin. For their work in developing penicillin, Fleming, Florey, and Chain shared the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1945. In 1948 Chain became the scientific director of the International Research Center for Chemical Microbiology at the Instituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome. In 1961 he returned to England, to become professor of biochemistry at Imperial College, London. He was given a knighthood in 1969. He is the author of Landmarks and Perspectives in Biochemical Research (1964). An ardent Zionist, Chain was a governor of the Weizmann Institute of Science at Reḥovot and active in the cause of Israel. In 1967 he became a member of the world executive of the World Jewish Congress.


T.N. Levitan, Laureates: Jewish Winners of the Nobel Prize (1960), 151ff. add. bibliography: R.W. Clark, The Life of Ernest Chain: Penicillin and Beyond (1985).

[Samuel Aaron Miller]