SciTech Tuesday: Norman Heatley and the Tale of Two Mice
Part one of a series on the development and mass production of penicillin.
The development of penicillin as an antibiotic began with Sir Alexander Fleming’s famous discovery in 1928. While Fleming’s serendipitous discovery is the stuff of microbiology legend, the work of a lesser-known team of scientists working in Britain is often left out of the story of penicillin. Beginning in 1938, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain began transforming the Penicillium “mold juice” into a medicine suitable for human use. The laborious task of purifying and concentrating penicillin was improved when their colleague Norman Heatley adjusted the pH of the solution. Heatley developed an assay (a method of quantitatively measuring the active ingredient in a sample) to improve the stability of penicillin in order to isolate the drug. He even automated the process of extracting penicillin by building a device with milk churns, bottles, and yards of rubber tubing.
To their great excitement, Florey’s team successfully cured Streptomyces pyogenes infected mice with penicillin on May 25, 1940. Norman Heatley oversaw the trials and recorded in his diary, “After supper with some friends, I returned to the lab and met the professor to give a final dose of penicillin to two of the mice. The ‘controls’ were looking very sick, but the two treated mice seemed very well. I stayed at the lab until 3:45am, by which time all four control animals were dead.” Delirious with excitement, Heatley returned home early that morning, surprised to find that he had put his underpants on backwards in the dark! The usually mild-mannered Heatley noted in his journal, “It really looks as if penicillin may be of practical importance.”
Next week, Sir Alexander Fleming, Charles Darwin, and antibiotic resistance.
Post by Annie Tête, STEM Education Coordinator
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