Overview of Life
Howard Walter Florey, Baron Florey, OM, FRS, FRCP (24 September 1898 – 21 February 1968) was an Australian pharmacologist and pathologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with Sir Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Alexander Fleming for his role in the development of penicillin.
Although Fleming received most of the credit for the discovery of penicillin, it was Florey who carried out the first ever clinical trials in 1941 of penicillin at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford on the first patient, a postmaster from Wolvercote near Oxford. The patient started to recover but subsequently died because Florey was unable, at that time, to make enough penicillin. It was Florey and Chain who actually made a useful and effective drug out of penicillin, after the task had been abandoned as too difficult.
Florey’s discoveries, along with the discoveries of Alexander Fleming and Ernst Chain, are estimated to have saved over 200 million lives, and he is consequently regarded by the Australian scientific and medical community as one of its greatest figures. Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, said, “In terms of world well-being, Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia”.
Early life and education
Howard Florey was the youngest of three children and the only son. His father, Joseph Florey, was an English immigrant, and his mother Bertha Mary Florey was a third-generation Australian. He was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1898.
Howard Florey was educated at Kyre College Preparatory School (now Scotch College) and then St Peter’s College, Adelaide, where he was a brilliant academic and junior sportsman. He studied medicine at the University of Adelaide from 1917 to 1921. At the university, he met Ethel Reed (Mary Ethel Hayter Reed), another medical student, who became both his wife and his research colleague. The marriage was unhappy, due to Ethel’s poor health and Florey’s intolerance.
Florey continued his studies at Magdalen College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, receiving the degrees of BA 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 the University of Cambridge.
After periods in the United States and at Cambridge, Florey 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, Oxford, 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.
In 1941, he and Chain treated their first patient, Albert Alexander, who had had a small sore at that corner of his mouth, which then spread leading to a severe facial infection involving Streptococci and Staphylococci. His whole face, eyes and scalp were swollen to the extent that he had had an eye removed to relieve some of the pain. Within a day of being given penicillin, he started recovering. However, the researchers did not have enough penicillin to help him to a full recovery, and he relapsed and died. Because of this experience and of the difficulty in producing penicillin, the researchers changed their focus to children, who could be treated with smaller quantities.
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 said that the project was originally driven by scientific interests, and that the medicinal discovery was a bonus:
People sometimes think that I and the others worked on penicillin because we were interested in suffering humanity. I don’t 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.
— Howard Florey,
Developing penicillin was a team effort, as these things tend to be
— Howard Florey, Baron Florey
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 mould that makes penicillin, but it was Chain and Florey who developed it into a useful treatment.
Honours and awards
On 18 July 1944 Florey was appointed a Knight Bachelor. In 1947 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
He was awarded the Lister Medal in 1945 for his contributions to surgical science. The corresponding Lister Oration, given at the Royal College of Surgeons of England later that year, was titled “Use of Micro-organisms for Therapeutic Purposes”.
Florey was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1941 and became president in 1958. In 1962, Florey became Provost of The Queen’s College, Oxford. During his term as Provost, the college built a new residential block, named the Florey Building in his honour. The building was designed by the British architect Sir James Stirling.
On 4 February 1965 Sir Howard was appointed a life peer and became Baron Florey, of Adelaide in the State of South Australia and 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 it recognised the monumental work Florey did in making penicillin available in sufficient quantities to save millions of lives in the war, despite Fleming’s doubts that this was feasible. On 15 July 1965 Florey was appointed a Member of The Order of Merit.
Florey was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1965 until his death in 1968. The lecture theatre at the John Curtin School of Medical Research was named for him during his tenure at the ANU.
Australian $50 note in circulation 1973–95
Florey’s portrait appeared on the Australian $50 note for 22 years (1973–95), and the suburb of Florey in the Australian Capital Territory is named after him. The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, located at the University of Melbourne, Victoria, and the largest lecture theatre in the University of Adelaide’s medical school are also named after him. In 2006, the federal government of Australia renamed the Australian Student Prize, given to outstanding high-school leavers, the “Lord Florey Student Prize”, in recognition of Florey.
The Florey Unit of the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, Berkshire, is named after him.
The “Lord Florey Chair” in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sheffield is named in his honour.