Skip to main content

The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat – Eric Lax ****

The intriguingly enigmatic title of this book on the development of penicillin conceals two fascinating facts. The first is Dr Florey himself. For pretty well everyone, the name associated with penicillin’s use as an antibiotic is Alexander Fleming. While Fleming does feature in this book, it’s Florey, a practically unknown name in the wider world, who is the star.
Fleming was the first to notice the anti-bacterial action of penicillin, but it took the Australian Rhodes scholar and later professor of pathology at Oxford University, Howard Florey, along with co-workers, Norman Heatley (whose practical ideas made the isolation of the active material possible) and Ernst Chain, to turn it into a practical medical weapon.
The other intriguing surprise is the coat. Apparently there was concern that Florey’s work, peaking as it did during the second world war, would be captured by invading Germans. Heatley had the idea of rubbing the penicillin mould into the four key workers lab coats, so all evidence of their work could be destroyed in the event of an invasion without losing their anti-bacterial agent.
Lax writes confidently and dives into fascinating detail of the individuals involved. Fleming emerges as a quiet-spoken but quirky individual (he delighted in creating images out of the bacteria he was growing on agar plates by arranging the initial colonies so that they would grow to form a recognisable coloured picture). Florey, despite being described as having some bluff colonial traits, comes across as a very cold man, hardly ever addressing anyone by their first name, and mostly seeming to communicate with his wife through notes. Heatley, who has been practically ignored elsewhere, is recognized at last as an essential contributor to the effort.
This is a well crafted and enjoyably paced scientific biography. As if often the case with a medical or technological breakthrough, the science itself isn’t particularly thrilling – and Lax’s expertise is very much as biographer rather than in explaining any complexities of the biology – but the implications for us all certainly make this a significant book.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…