Howard Florey's Laboratory, Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, United Kingdom


 University of Oxford.

Howard Florey. Credit: University of Oxford.

The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, is where the outstanding Australian Howard Florey conducted his pioneering research to develop the anti-bacterial drug penicillin. The work of Florey and his team at Oxford was the greatest advance in medical science in its day, and has since saved millions of lives.

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In 1935, in recognition of his early research achievements, Florey was appointed to the position of the William Dunn Chair of Pathology. As Chair he took the unusual step of drawing together a multi-disciplinary team to undertake medical research on antibacterial substances. In the 1930s, bacterial infections and sepsis continued to claimed many lives. The mid 1930s witnessed the introduction of the sulphanilamide drugs to fight bacterial infections but they were ineffective against staphylococci and pneumococci, and the search for further antibacterial agents continued.

Discovering penicillin

The story of the discovery of penicillin began with Alexander Fleming, who in 1928 noticed that mould had inhibited the growth of some species of bacteria. He correctly identified the mould extract as being from the penicillium family. Years later, a member of Florey's team, Ernst Chain, stumbled across an article from 1929 on Fleming's work. Florey switched the focus of his biochemical team to developing a penicillin that could be mass-produced.

Sir William Dunn school. Credit: University of Oxford.

The first antibiotic to successfully to treat serious infectious diseases

In mid 1940, Florey and his team at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology performed one of the most important medical experiments. Penicillin was tested on mice injected with a lethal does of streptococci bacteria, with miraculous results. The first human clinical trials of penicillin began in the early months of 1941, during which its remarkable healing powers were demonstrated. Trials continued over the next few years, and commercial production of penicillin began in mid 1943. Aware of the high infection rate among wounded WWII soldiers, Florey and his team raced to produce sufficient penicillin to enable it to be used on the beaches of France on D-Day, radically improving the survival rates of, and reducing the need for invasive surgery on, the wounded.

International accolades

Widely honoured for his pioneering work with antibacterial agents, Florey, with Alexander Fleming and Ernst Chain shared the 1945 Noble Prize for Physiology or Medicine 'for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases'.

Florey was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1941, knighted in 1944 and created a peer in 1965. He was appointed to the French Lgion d'honneur in 1946 and awarded the United States of America's Medal of Merit in 1948. He was the first Australian to be elected to the prestigious position of President of the Royal Society (1960-65) and was Provost of Queen's College, Oxford from 1962 to 1968. Florey was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1965 until his death in Oxford, on 21 February 1968.

His laboratory at Oxford University is of outstanding significance to Australia as the place where this revolutionary research, which has helped alleviate suffering around the globe, took place.