Howard Walter Florey, Baron

(1898—1968) experimental pathologist and bacteriologist

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Australian pathologist whose contribution to the development of penicillin as an antibiotic for clinical use earned him the 1945 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He was knighted in 1944 and raised to the peerage in 1965, when he was also appointed to the OM.

Born in Adelaide, Florey graduated in medicine from Adelaide University in 1922 and obtained a Rhodes Scholarship to study physiology and pathology at Oxford University. After brief spells in Cambridge, touring the USA, and working at the London Hospital, Florey returned to Cambridge, where he obtained his PhD studying the physiology of mucus secretion and encountered the distinguished biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. In 1931 Florey was appointed Joseph Hunter Professor of Pathology at Sheffield University and in 1935 moved to Oxford to head the William Dunn School of Pathology. Here, Florey appointed the biochemist Ernst Chain to lead a biochemical unit in the department. Initially they pursued Florey's interest in the antibacterial enzyme lysozyme, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1921. But, disappointed with its low therapeutic value, they looked for other more effective substances and selected penicillin, first discovered by Fleming in 1928. Florey and his team cultured the mould Penicillium notatum and eventually obtained a pure extract of the penicillin it manufactures. By scaling up production they obtained sufficient penicillin for the first clinical trials on human patients, which took place at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, in 1941 and were a great success. Florey and his colleague Norman Heatly went to the USA to promote the enormous potential of penicillin, especially to treat war casualties, and to establish large-scale production facilities. By 1943, penicillin was being used to treat troops in Europe and ultimately saved countless lives. Florey followed up with work on another antibiotic, cephalosporin C. He also made important studies of blood circulation, especially cell movement through the capillary network, and of sperm movement in the female reproductive tract. In 1962 he resigned his professorship to become provost of Queen's College, Oxford. He was president of the Royal Society (1960–65).

Florey maintained his links with Australia, advising on medical research and forming close ties with the Australian National University at Canberra, of which he became chancellor in 1965.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics — Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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