Penicillin's Supporting Cast: Norman Heatley, Ernst Chain, Howard Florey, and Moldy Mary!
Updated: Jun 24
Here is the playbill for the "The Improbable Journey Of Fleming's Discovery of Penicillin." Let me introduce you to our supporting cast: Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley, and our only female cast member, Moldy Mary.
Howard Walter Florey
Howard Florey was the head of the research team at Oxford that was able to isolate and manufacture penicillin.
He was born in Adelaide, Australia on September 24, 1898. Being the young brother of 4 older sisters, he learned quite a bit about patience, communication, and getting along with others, all traits I attribute to his penicillin legacy.
Howard Florey, like Fleming, also wanted to go to medical school. And like Fleming, did not go to medical school because of a sport. For Fleming it was the rifle club for Howard Florey, it was tennis (and academics) that granted him a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He was later the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship where he worked with Alfred Newton Richards in America. Keeping these American connections would be important to the success of penicillin.
He eventually came back to Britain, received his Ph.D. from Cambridge, and returned to Oxford to be the director of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.
Having traveled all over the world and researching with all sorts of scientists, Howard Walter Florey understood the power of diversity. Seeing how different upbringings demonstrate different perspectives and how having these perspectives can give you the advantage to understand, discover, and succeed.
So, when starting up his lab, Howard Florey chose a handful of characters. His lab would not just research pathology, but include chemistry, microbiology, and molecular biology, allowing him to approach a problem from a number of scientific disciplines.
His research team helped isolate penicillin from Penicillium notatum, the fungi that produced penicillin. Florey then traveled back to America, where his former mentor Richards from the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, put him in contact with the right people to learn how to mass-produce this wonder drug.
Parts of Howard Florey's team wanted to patent this discovery, but Florey was against this idea.
How could you patent nature, how could you patent something the whole world needs?!?
That thought was appalling to him, but the Americans did the stereotypical American thing and put money over morality by patenting penicillin, making millions, and leaving Florey out of the profit.
Later in his career, Florey’s group also developed Cephalosporin C, another antibiotic that Howard Florey, learning his lesson from the Americans, did decide to patent in 1954.
From all accounts, Florey was a great researcher and a good human being. He did a number of things to give back to the community including organizing the Australian National University in Canberra as a postgraduate-level university in 1965, later becoming one of the chancellors there.
Howard Walter Florey has honorary degrees from 17 different universities. He is an honorary member of many societies and, of course, was a recipient of the 1945 Nobel Prize. Florey died on February 21, 1968.
Ernst Boris Chain
Ernst Boris Chain is a crowd favorite in the play of penicillin, however, not one I particularly would like to work with. He’s described as volatile, confident and was forever at odds with Florey, his supervisor.
He was a second-generation chemist who was involved in isolating penicillin, the first step in manufacturing and revolutionizing medicine.
Being of Russian-German-Jewish descent, he decided to get out of Berlin in 1933 before the Nazis came. Good thinking Chain! He was smart to do so and moved to England, unfortunately leaving a mother and sister behind, they did not survive the Holocaust.
Ernst Chain was a man of many talents and, when it came to picking his career track in England, he debated between scientist and professional pianist, ultimately going with the scientist.
He was lucky he was brilliant because his abrasive and poor attitude made it hard to hire him. Co-workers hated him, and he often complained how terrible the London equipment was compared to the pristine labs they had in Germany.
Ernst Chain worked for Florey’s mentor, Hopkins, for 2 years between 1933-1935. Hopkins, growing tired of Ernst Chain’s abrasive behavior, remembers how much of a challenge Florey liked and how he wanted a diverse group. This resulted in Hopkins convincing Howard Florey to hire Ernst Chain, a match not quite made in heaven. But it is a match we should all be grateful for!
Chain, with his expert skills, made quick work of isolating penicillin. This involved careful control of pH, temperature, and evaporating the product over and over. It was a precise and labor-intensive process that took gallons of mold broth to create just a fingernail size of penicillin.
After all his work, Chain wanted to patent it ASAP. Florey was against this idea stating we mustn't commercialize something that would benefit all mankind.
After WWII, Chain decided he had enough of Oxford and Florey, so he moved to Rome where he worked to create synthetic penicillins. This eventually resulted in a number of semisynthetic penicillins we have today such as penicillin V and ampicillin.
Dr. Norman Heatley
A much quieter person than Ernst Chain, but still an influential side character to the penicillin play.
Dr. Norman Heatley was the bedpan man, using a number of creative resources to grow penicillin, despite the short supplies brought on by WWII. Heatly developed a crude, but usable, a technique for isolating penicillin. This produced very small amounts of penicillin that could never be mass-produced, but it was a start.
Despite his contributions to the penicillin project, he did not receive the Nobel Prize with Fleming, Florey, and Chain. He did, however, receive an honorary degree from Oxford, the first-ever in 800 years.
Norman Heatley was an author of over 60 scientific papers and has a lab named after him at Oxford. He had a wife, 2 sons, 2 daughters, and 6 grandchildren, passing away at the ripe old age of 92 on January 5, 2004.
An Errand Girl Or Another Women Pushed Aside By A Man? Moldy Mary is the only female cast in the penicillin play, and she had interesting sidekicks, moldy fruit.
Her details are quite murky and, with a legacy of Moldy Mary, no one is even quite sure who she was. She was thought to be born in 1910 as Marya Hantusko and immigrated to the US in 1913. She’s thought to have lived in Chicago, but there aren’t many records of her from 1920-1943.
However, some newspaper clippings state she went to the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois Medical School to study Bacteriology and public health, meaning she was well-educated. At some point in her life, she changed her name to Mary Hunt.
Mary was likely a nurse for a bit before working at the Department of Agriculture’s Northern Regional Research Laboratory (NRRL) in Peoria, Illinois, the location where Howard Florey and Norman Heatley brought their Penicillin to figure out how best to manufacture it.
Again, the details are likely blurred in the hype and history of penicillin, but her claim to fame was bringing in the moldy cantaloupe. She was tasked to find a new strain of penicillin, and so she frequented corner grocery markets for moldy fruit, asking grocers to set aside fruit they may throw away.
Moldy Mary's ventures into the wilderness (aka the corner grocery stores) to find new strains of penicillin is what earned her the nickname Moldy Mary, which I guess as far as nicknames go, is better than Typhoid Mary, but more on her on a later date.
It is not clear where the moldy melon came from, or how random this discovery truly was. Was she simply an errand girl to collect rotting fruit? Did her know-how and experience in bacteriology assist her in selecting the moldy melon that saved humanity? Regardless, this moldy cantaloupe had a different kind of mold growing on it, Penicillium chrysogenum, which produced 200x more penicillin than Fleming’s strain, Penicillium notatum. This was the missing piece! With this new strain, penicillin could now be marketable!
Moldy Mary never doubted she was important to the final act of this saga, but her supervisors had a different story, stating she was “a simple messenger girl”, and that she was “made by the newspapers”.
So was Moldy Mary soaking up the media fame and stretching the truth to her contributions? Did the media do that on their own as they so often do? Or were her contributions cast aside for being a woman?
We may never know.