Penicillin research at Oxford
It was Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and their colleagues at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford
University who turned penicillin from a laboratory curiosity into a life-saving drug. Their work on the
purification and chemistry of penicillin began in earnest in 1939, just when wartime conditions were beginning
to make research especially difficult. To carry out a program of animal experiments and clinical trials the
team needed to process up to 500 liters a week of mold filtrate. They began growing it in a strange array of culture
vessels such as baths, bedpans, milk churns, and food tins. Later, a customized fermentation vessel was designed for
ease of removing and, to save space, renewing the broth beneath the surface of the mold. A team of "penicillin girls"
was employed, at £2 a week, to inoculate and generally look after the fermentation. In effect, the Oxford laboratory
was being turned into a penicillin factory.
Meanwhile, biochemist Norman Heatley extracted penicillin from huge volumes of filtrate coming off the production line
by extracting it into amyl acetate and then back into water, using a countercurrent system. Edward Abraham, another
biochemist who was employed to help step up production, then used the newly discovered technique of alumina column
chromatography to remove impurities from the penicillin prior to clinical trials.
In 1940, Florey carried out vital experiments, showing that penicillin could protect mice against infection from deadly
Streptococci. Then, on February 12, 1941, a 43-year old policeman, Albert Alexander, became the first recipient
of the Oxford penicillin. He had scratched the side of his mouth while pruning roses, and had developed a life-threatening
infection with huge abscesses affecting his eyes, face, and lungs. Penicillin was injected and within days he made a
remarkable recovery. But supplies of the drug ran out and he died a few days later. Better results followed with other
patients though and soon there were plans to make penicillin available for British troops on the battlefield.
War-time conditions made industrial production of penicillin difficult. A number of British companies, including Glaxo
(now GlaxoSmithKline) and Kemball Bishop, a London firm later bought by Pfizer, took up the challenge.