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

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…