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Millions saved and still counting

Howard Florey

" terms of world well-being, Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia." - Sir Robert Menzies, 12th Prime Minister of Australia.

In 1921, Howard Florey graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery. At this time his future achievements could not have been imagined. Antibiotics did not exist and infections were feared as cancer is today - a simple cut or scrape was enough to cause an early death. But Florey and his team of scientists changed the course of history when they developed penicillin into an antibiotic treatment. It was a medical discovery so significant that it won him a Nobel Prize and has saved an estimated 80 million lives... and counting.

Penicillin is considered to be one of the top ten greatest medical discoveries of all time; however the journey to understanding its healing properties was a long one.  Whilst the use of mould as a treatment for infection can be dated back to ancient times, the story of penicillin began with Alexander Fleming in 1928. While away on holidays, Fleming left a dirty Petri dish in his lab. Upon his return he found  that mould in the dish had created a bacteria-free zone around itself, preventing the bacteria from growing. Identifying the substance as Penicillium Notatum, he wrote a paper about its bacterial properties. This ‘accidental discovery’ by Fleming set the course for the medical breakthrough later uncovered by Florey and his team of researchers.   

In 1939 Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and their research team turned their attention to penicillin and antibiotics. They examined the large scale production of mould, the purification process and the extraction of the active ingredient, penicillin. In 1940, Florey’s team performed one of the most important medical experiments in history. They injected eight mice with a lethal dose of bacteria and treated four of the mice with penicillin. By the next day, the mice treated with penicillin had recovered, while the untreated mice had died.  

By 1941, testing of penicillin had begun on humans and within two years, Florey had the opportunity to travel to North Africa to test its effects on wounded soldiers. Instead of amputating wounded limbs or leaving them to heal, Florey suggested soldiers' wounds be cleaned and sewn up, and that the patients be given penicillin. This treatment was seen as a miracle cure and thanks to Florey and his team; the drug was available to treat Allied troops by the end of World War II.

Following this success, the focus was to develop the antibiotic so it could be used as an everyday medical treatment. Florey and his team transformed a laboratory curiosity into a practical drug - spawning a huge pharmaceutical industry that would forever change the treatment of bacterial infections. It has since revolutionised medical science, saving millions of lives.

Despite the huge impact that the drug had on the world, Florey made no fortune from his discovery because at the time patenting penicillin was considered medically unethical. He continued his academic work however, and was awarded high honours around the world for his widespread and lasting impact on the health of humanity. Despite his remarkable achievements and recognition, he remained humble - avoiding media attention and describing his achievements as ‘a terrible amount of luck’.  

In his later years, Florey dedicated his attention towards contraceptive research. Responsible for saving millions of lives, he was well aware of the implications in terms of population growth. Seeing this as a somewhat negative impact of his discovery, he developed a life-long interest in contraception research, and became an active advocate for population control.

"I'm now accused of being partly responsible for the population explosion... one of the most devastating things that the world has got to face for the rest of this century," Florey said.

Despite living in the United Kingdom for most of his life, Florey maintained his ties to Australia and is today recognised as one of our greatest scientists. The University of Adelaide remembers him for his early brilliance, and is proud to have taught Florey the scientific foundations that would help him make his extraordinary impact on the world. His achievements continue to inspire both students and researchers, particularly within the Florey Medical Research Foundation, which was named in his honour. The Foundation is currently progressing a broad range of clinical, biomedical and public health research projects of major international standard.

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