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Scientists are sticklers for facts, but being as human as the rest of us, they enjoy praise. If a news story about a scientific accomplishment produces acclaim, who can blame the beneficiary of that glory for basking in its glow -- even if the glare obscures others more deserving of credit?
The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle by Eric Lax describes the case of the public spotlight shining on one individual while others remain unrecognized in the shadows. Without diminishing the importance of Alexander Fleming's astute observation that a chance discovery could lead to great benefits for human health, Lax argues that Oxford University Medical Researchers Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley deserve the public acclaim that has been Fleming's for sixty years.
Fleming made his serendipitous discovery at St. Mary's Medical School in 1928, pursued it in his laboratory the next year, and published a paper in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, of which Florey was one of the editors. The paper included an observation that penicillin was an antiseptic and might cure infectious disease. Nevertheless, the manuscript generated little attention.
Fleming published another paper on penicillin 1n 1932. Although he continued to work on it from time to time until 1935, that paper effectively marked the end of his research on the substance. Meanwhile Florey's growing reputation had earned him the Chair of Pathology at Oxford in 1935. Later that year, Ernst Chain joined the Oxford Pathology laboratory. A Jewish refugee from Germany who chose pathology rather than pursuing a career as a concert pianist, Chain discovered Fleming's 1929 paper in a 1938 literature search and persuaded Florey that it made sense to try to develop it as a clinically effective substance. Florey hired Heatley to work with Chain, and the rest is history.
And what a rich historical story it is: full of the challenges of working in wartime Britain (including an incident that leads to the book's title), technological and business obstacles, personality clashes, and romantic disappointments and intrigue. Finally came success and misattributed glory. Though Fleming, Florey, and Chain shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945, they also engaged in personal or professional feuding that would never be resolved.
Though the book will never erase sixty years of myth-making, Lax's fascinating account gives Florey, Chain, Heatley, and others at Oxford the recognition they deserve. Still, most people will recall the New York Times headline, "Fleming and Two Co-Workers Get Nobel for Penicillin Boon," rather than the next day's editorial that corrected the oversight of Florey, Chain, and the reason they had mold in their coats.