Tag Archives: Howard Florey

Gwyn Macfarlane’s research on Alexander Fleming is now available

(Robert) Gwyn Macfarlane [by Jmcperth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons]

(Robert) Gwyn Macfarlane [by Jmcperth (own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The catalogue of a small archive of the working papers of Gwyn Macfarlane (1907-1987), haematologist and biographer, is now available online, released as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded 75 Years of Penicillin in People project.

Macfarlane compiled these papers while researching his book Alexander Fleming, the Man and the Myth (1984). The book re-evaluated the work and reputation of the man whose paper on Penicillium mould inspired the development of the antibiotic drug penicillin by the Oxford University scientists Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley. The archive includes revealing correspondence with people who were connected with the development of antibiotics, including members of Fleming’s family, nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin (whose archive we hold), Norman Heatley (archive at the Wellcome Library) and Edward Penley Abraham (we also hold his archive!).

Macfarlane himself was a clinical pathologist at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford and also held a chair in clinical pathology at the University of Oxford, focusing particularly on the treatment of haemophilia. During the second world war, he worked alongside members of the penicillin team, who did war work with Oxford’s blood transfusion service, and later became friends with Howard Florey. He wrote two biographies during his retirement, this biography of Fleming and a biography of Florey, Howard Florey: the making of a great scientist (1979).

Macfarlane was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1956. His FRS biography is Robert Gwyn Macfarlane, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, G.V.R. Born and D.J. Weatheral, Volume 35, 1990. You can find more about Macfarlane’s scientific career at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required), or, of course, at Wikipedia.

Penicillin trials and later

Penicillin trials
The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology

Records of the first human trials of intravenous penicillin carried out at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford in 1941, held by the Bodleian Library, reveal the dramatic results achieved by this new drug, the first safe antibiotic, which had been isolated and developed by Professor Howard Florey and his team at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology over the previous two years.

In February 1941 the first of a number of patients with severe infections, a 43 year old man, responded well for the first five days, but production techniques were not yet sophisticated enough to produce sufficient of the drug to maintain the treatment for long enough and he slowly relapsed and died. Some weeks later a four year old boy was making a good recovery from his infection, having progressed from ‘an ill-looking boy lying quietly in bed’ when first admitted to ‘cheerful and blowing lustily at toy trumpet’ ten days later.  Sadly, he later died of other causes. The efficacy of penicillin in humans had been demonstrated, however, and other patients recovered well and were discharged.

At this very early stage, the word that is now so familiar to us was clearly still unknown even to some hospital staff as, on a number of occasions, it appears as ‘perricillin’ in the records.

Edward Abraham, a biochemist who worked alongside Florey, and who determined the molecular structure of penicillin, went on to work on other antibiotics. In the 1950s, at the Dunn School, he and Dr Guy Newton discovered cephalosporin C, leading to the production of a whole new group of antibiotics. Abraham’s papers are also held at the Bodleian.