Howard Walter Florey, Baron Florey OM FRS (24 September 1898 – 21 February 1968) was an Australian pharmacologist and pathologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Alexander Fleming for his role in the extraction of penicillin. Florey’s discoveries are estimated to have saved over 80 million lives, worldwide. Florey is regarded by the Australian scientific and medical community as one of its greatest scientists. 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”.
Born the youngest of five children in Adelaide, South Australia, Howard Florey was educated at St Peter’s College, Adelaide, where he was a brilliant student and junior sportsman. He studied medicine at theUniversity of Adelaide from 1917 to 1921. At the university he met Ethel Reed, another medical student, who became both his wife and his research colleague. A Rhodes Scholar, he continued his studies atMagdalen College, Oxford, receiving the degrees of BA and MA. In 1926 he was elected to a fellowship atGonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and a year later he received the degree of PhD from theUniversity of Cambridge.
After periods in the United States and at Cambridge, he was appointed to the Joseph Hunter Chair ofPathology 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 Chainand Norman Heatley, he read Alexander Fleming’s paper discussing the antibacterial effects ofPenicillium notatum mould. He mass produced this mould for the injections of the soldiers of World War II who suffered from infections.
In 1941, they treated their first patient, Albert Alexander, who had been scratched by a rose thorn. His whole face, eyes, scalp were swollen, and he had an eye removed to relieve some of the pain. Within a day of being given penicillin, he started recovering. However they did not have enough penicillin to help him to full recovery, he relapsed, and died. Because of this experience, they changed their focus to children, who did not need such large quantities of penicillin.
Florey’s 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 the project was originally driven by scientific interests, and that the medicinal discovery was a bonus:
Florey shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with Ernst Boris Chain and Alexander Fleming. Fleming first observed the antibiotic properties of the mold that makes penicillin, but it was Chain and Florey who developed it into a useful treatment.
He was openly concerned about the population explosion resulting from improving healthcare, and was a staunch believer in contraception.
After the death of his wife Ethel, he married his long-time colleague and research assistant Dr. Margaret Jennings in 1967. He died of a heart attack in 1968 and was honoured with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey, London.