Sir Howard Walter Florey

views updated

Sir Howard Walter Florey


English Pathologist

Sir Howard Walter Florey was also known as Baron Florey of Adelaide. He was an Australian-born British pathologist who worked with Ernst Boris Chain (1906-1979) isolating and purifying penicillin. They further demonstrated its effectiveness against harmful bacteria, developed methods for mass production, and helped introduce it into general clinical use. Together, they, with Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), the discoverer of penicillin, shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Because of his contributions to science, Florey was knighted in 1944.

Howard Florey was born in 1898, at Adelaide, South Australia. His early education was at St. Peter's Collegiate School in Adelaide. He subsequently attended Adelaide University, where he graduated in 1921. He accepted a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College and moved to England, never to return to his native Australia. Following that experience, he went to Cambridge and eventually received his Ph.D. in 1927. He was then appointed Huddersfield Lecturer in Special Pathology at Cambridge. In 1931 he became Chair of Pathology at the University of Sheffield. Leaving Sheffield in 1935 he became Professor of Pathology and a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. In 1962 he was made Provost of The Queen's College, Oxford.

In 1924 Florey joined the Oxford University Arctic Expedition as its medical officer. This expedition undertook various scientific investigations, including the study of topography and ice crystals. This expedition was the first arctic expedition to use an airplane as a mode of transport. However, the plane crashed, and Florey treated the slight injuries of the pilot and the team leader.

Florey's best-known research is from his collaboration with Chain. In 1938, they investigated tissue inflammation and secretion of mucous membranes. Florey was convinced that there had to be a naturally occurring substance that would kill bacteria, so they conducted an intensive investigation of the properties of naturally occurring antibacterial substances. Their original subject of investigation was lysozyme, an antibacterial substance found in saliva and human tears. However, they did not produce any significant findings, and their interest shifted to a class of substances now known as antibiotics. They were particularly interested in a paper published by Fleming 10 years prior.

Fleming had discovered penicillin in 1928 as a result of observations on bacterial culture plates where a mold had developed in some areas and inhibited germ growth at those points. However, the active substance was never isolated. In 1939, Florey and Chain headed a team of British scientists that attempted to isolate and purify that substance. In 1940 they issued a report describing their success. The results indicated that penicillin was capable of killing germs inside the living body. Thereafter, great efforts were made to develop methods for mass production that would enable sufficient quantities of the drug to be made available for use in World War II to treat war wounds.

Despite his success as a scientist, Florey's personal life was not fulfilling to him. He married Ethel Reed, a fellow Australian, who had studied medicine with Florey at the University of Adelaide in 1926. Almost immediately, there was friction and it seemed that the only emotional outlet for Florey was his work. Between them they had two children and Ethel assisted her husband with the clinical trials of penicillin. Despite the difficulties, they remained married. Ethel Florey died in 1966. In June 1967, Florey married Margaret Jennings, a long-time colleague and friend. Here he found the happy marriage that had previously eluded him, but it was tragically brief. Florey died suddenly, less than a year later in 1968.


About this article

Sir Howard Walter Florey

Updated About content Print Article