The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle


"Admirable, superbly researched . . . perhaps the most exciting tale of science since the apple dropped on Newton's head."

—Simon Winchester, The New York Times

Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in his London laboratory in 1928 and its eventual development as the first antibiotic by a team at Oxford University headed by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in 1942 led to the introduction of the most ...

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"Admirable, superbly researched . . . perhaps the most exciting tale of science since the apple dropped on Newton's head."

—Simon Winchester, The New York Times

Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in his London laboratory in 1928 and its eventual development as the first antibiotic by a team at Oxford University headed by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in 1942 led to the introduction of the most important family of drugs of the twentieth century.

Yet credit for penicillin is largely misplaced. Neither Fleming nor Florey and his associates ever made real money from their achievements; instead it was the American labs that won patents on penicillin's manufacture and drew royalties from its sale. Why this happened, why it took fourteen years to develop penicillin, and how it was finally done is a fascinating story of quirky individuals, missed opportunities, medical prejudice, brilliant science, shoestring research, wartime pressures, misplaced modesty, conflicts between mentors and their protégés, and the passage of medicine from one era to the next.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Beautifully researched and written, alive with scientific and human insight, Lax's fine book likely will become the classic account of penicillin's true medical beginnings."Los Angeles Times Book Review
Simon Winchester
By reminding us of the stellar contributions to that same story that were made by the Oxford University team of Howard Florey, Ernest Chain and a hitherto utterly anonymous chemist named Norman Heatley, Mr. Lax has performed a service to science of which he should be proud and all must be grateful.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This book sets out to correct the misapprehension that Alexander Fleming, the first scientist to discover the antibacterial properties of the mold Penicillium notatum, was also responsible for developing the wonder drug that saved countless lives and ushered in the era of modern medicine. Although Fleming coined the term "penicillin," his tentative research on the mold produced few valuable results and was prematurely abandoned. More than a decade later, in 1940, a pathology team at Oxford University-headed by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and the now almost forgotten Norman Heatley-resumed Fleming's preliminary work and eventually developed the world's first viable antibiotic. Although Fleming, Florey and Chain shared a Nobel Prize in 1945 for their revolutionary work, accolades and media attention were disproportionately bestowed on Fleming, and in the popular imagination he was transformed into the sole creator of penicillin. Lax (Woody Allen; Life and Death on 10 West) has written a commendable account of this historical oversight, conveying the thrill of discovery during the upheaval of WWII and skillfully translating the abstruse technicalities of lab work and medical jargon into enjoyable prose. Yet this book also shows that monumental discoveries are not always born of monumental stories, and the narrative contains trivial details and petty grievances that made up these scientists' circumscribed lives. Lax's treatment is disciplined and focused, but it would have been improved by a broader historical sweep and more involved discussions of penicillin's impact on the pharmaceutical industry. 18-page b&w photo insert not seen by PW. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Lax, whose previous Life and Death on 10 West and Woody Allen: A Biography drew favorable reviews, turns his attention to the fascinating story surrounding the development of penicillin during World War II. Many people believe that Alexander Fleming was solely responsible for penicillin, yet he was only one of the players. Though Fleming initially reported the discovery of penicillin, several Oxford scientists, led by Howard Florey, worked on isolating, purifying, producing, and testing the antibiotic on humans. Eventually, Florey and his colleague Ernst Chain shared the Nobel prize with Fleming. Relying heavily on interviews and personal papers, Lax consistently illustrates the major impact of the war on their research-the antibiotic was desperately needed, yet they were stymied by a constant lack of funding and the threat of enemy soldiers destroying their work. Unlike previous Florey biographies or historical accounts of penicillin, Lax focuses on the early stages of research as seen through the eyes of the Oxford scientists. This fast-paced book is recommended for all public libraries and history of medicine collections.-Tina Neville, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Veteran journalist and author Lax (Woody Allen, 1991, etc.) takes a revealing look back at the time when world-altering science was done on a shoestring, bringing to brilliant life the story of the first great antibiotic. While Alexander Fleming is the name most often associated with penicillin, it was the Oxford team of Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley, the author reminds us, that turned Fleming's 1928 discovery of the potent mold into a life-saving miracle drug while working under Spartan and dangerous conditions. Responding to the threat of an imminent Nazi invasion, Heatley proposed that in case they were forced to abandon their work and flee, they preserve the mold spores by rubbing some into the fabric of their clothing. (Hence the title.) Lax first captures the personalities of each of these four men and then moves on to Florey's efforts to scrounge together the funds for his team's work. An initial grant from the Medical Research Council for materials was £25, the equivalent then of about $100. Funds from the Rockefeller Foundation were more generous, but ingenuity and improvisation remained essential. Heatley cobbled together an apparatus to extract penicillin from mold juice using glass tubing, assorted pumps, copper coils, colored warning lights, and even an old doorbell. The meager amounts of penicillin the team was able to produce showed therapeutic potential, but larger quantities were needed to run the necessary clinical trials. Unable to interest British pharmaceutical companies, they turned to the US, offering to share all their knowledge of how to produce penicillin in return for a supply. Florey and Heatley's dog-and-pony show in the US, the American rolein the penicillin story, Fleming's public behavior when the news of penicillin's clinical value became known, the Nobel Prize expectations of those involved all make for fascinating reading. Even sex rears its intriguing head, with both Florey's wife and mistress getting into the act. Informative and thoroughly enjoyable science history. Agent: Owen Laster/William Morris
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805077780
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 466,993
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Lax is the author of Woody Allen, A Biography and Life and Death on 10 West, both New York Times Notable Books. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Life, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire, as well as in many other magazines and newspapers. He lives with his wife and two sons in Los Angeles.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Reclaimed Life 1
1. The Quiet Scot 7
2. The Rough Colonial Genius 32
3. The Money Talks 51
4. The Temperamental Continental 59
5. The Micro Master 69
6. "Without Heatley, No Penicillin" 85
7. Eight Mice 114
8. Blitzed 136
9. "Will These Plans Come to Grief?" 157
10. The Friend in Deed 171
11. The Kilo That Never Came 197
12. The Laurel Wreath of Credit 210
13. The Thinking in Stockholm 230
14. The Makers of Great Medicine 249
Notes 265
Bibliography 289
Acknowledgments 292
Index 295
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2004

    Eric Lax hits the high notes

    Eric Lax is to be commended for his excellent book, 'The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat'. The team of scientist in Oxford who did so much work on the development of penicillin really are brought to life and all of their human qualities are aired for the whole world to see. The book reads in some ways like a novel which makes it move very quickly and it is a hard read to put down. Working in the backdrop of WWII makes is all the more compelling. I felt that Mr. Lax did a great job of writing it so the average layman could understand what was going on in the lab. The three scientists, FLorey, Chain and Heatley are certainly the true stars of the book. Although many others contributed to penicillin's development, these were the ones that were so deeply devoted in their research. I felt that Dr. Norman Heatley was the true hero in this story. It was through his ingenuity and persistence of building a penicillin extractor that made so much of it possible. And he did this in war torn Britain with next to nothing to assist him in building his apparati. Certainly the human failings of self centeredness show through once Dr. Fleming decides the bigwigs in Sweden need to know about his contribution for the Nobel Prize. A great book and I would highly recommend it. Phil

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2004

    Brisk, well-researched medical nonfiction

    Eric Lax proves an apt documentarian for this monumental episode in medical history - his text is brisk and well-researched, melodramatic enough to interest the non-M.D. but thorough and technical at times sufficient to satisfy the reader more inclined to medical minutiae. He focuses a little too attentively on unnecessary details of these historical figures' personal lives at times, but overall the book is a fascinating and engaging read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2004


    It went on and on......this story could have been completed in one chapter.

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