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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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