Howard Florey

Howard Walter Florey, Baron Florey, OM, FRS, (September 24, 1898 – February 21, 1968) was a pharmacologist who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1945 with Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Alexander Fleming for his role in the extraction of penicillin.

Born the youngest of five children in Adelaide, South Australia, Florey was a brilliant student (and junior sportsman, although he did not excel at maths) who was educated at St Peter’s College, Adelaide. He went to study medicine at the University of Adelaide from 1917 to 1921. At the university he met Ethel Reed, another medical student who was to become both his wife and his research colleague.

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A Rhodes Scholar, he continued his studies at the Magdalen College, Oxford, receiving the degrees of BSc and MA. In 1926 he was elected to a fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and a year later he received the degree of PhD from Cambridge.

After periods in the United States and at the University of Cambridge, he was appointed to the Joseph Hunter Chair of Pathology at the University of Sheffield in 1931. In 1935 he returned to Oxford, as Professor of Pathology and Fellow of Lincoln College, leading a team of researchers. In 1938, working with Ernst Boris Chain and Norman Heatley, he read Alexander Fleming’s paper discussing the antibacterial effects of Penicillium notatum mould. His research team investigated the large-scale production of the mould and efficient extraction of the active ingredient, succeeding to the point where, by 1945, penicillin production was an industrial process for the Allies in World War II. However, Florey held that its discovery came only as scientific merit, and that the medicinal discovery was only a bonus:

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‘People sometimes think that I and the others worked on penicillin because we were interested in suffering humanity. I don¹t think it ever crossed our minds about suffering humanity. This was an interesting scientific exercise, and because it was of some use in medicine is very gratifying, but this was not the reason that we started working on it.’

He was also openly concerned about the population explosion resulting from improving healthcare, and was a staunch believer in contraception.

In 1962, Florey became Provost of The Queen’s College, Oxford. During his term as Provost, the college built a new accommodation block, named the Florey Building in his honour. The building was designed by the British architect Sir James Stirling.

Having been knighted in 1944, Florey was made a life peer in 1965 as Baron Florey, of Adelaide in the Commonwealth of Australia and of Marston in the County of Oxford. This was a higher honour than the knighthood awarded to penicillin’s discoverer, Sir Alexander Fleming, and recognised the monumental work Florey did in making penicillin available in sufficient quantities to save millions of lives in the war, despite the doubts of Fleming that this was feasible.

Lord Florey was elected president of the Royal Society in 1959. After the death of Ethel, he married his long-time colleague and research assistant Dr. Margaret Jennings in 1967. Florey was Chancellor of The Australian National University 1965-68. He died of a heart attack in 1968.

Florey is regarded by the Australian scientific and medical community as probably its greatest scientist. Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, said that ‘in terms of world well-being, Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia’.

Florey’s portrait appeared on the Australian $50 note for many years, and a suburb in the national capital Canberra is named after him. The Howard Florey Institute, located at the University of Melbourne, and the largest lecture theatre in the University of Adelaide’s medical school are also named after him.

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