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Page last updated at 09:17 GMT, Tuesday, 20 July 2010 10:17 UK
Norman Heatley, the Unsung Hero who developed penicillin
By Dave Gilyeat
BBC Oxford

Dr Norman Heatley
Norman Heatley (1911-2004) changed medical history

Norman Heatley played a crucial part in the development of penicillin.

However, the work the scientist conducted during 1939-43 has largely been overlooked by the history books.

Men such as Sir Alexander Fleming, Professor Howard Florey and Ernst Chain have received much credit for their part in discovering the miracle drug.

But a new Blue Plaque has been unveiled at the Oxford home where Heatley lived for nearly 60 years, and he may at last receive the recognition he deserves.

Next level

The discovery of penicillin is usually attributed to Sir Alexander Fleming.

It was 1928 when the scientist discovered one of his bacteria samples had been partially destroyed after being contaminated with a fungus.

He conducted further experiments in an attempt to isolate the antibiotic agent but found it too unstable to purify.

Fleming soon lost interest and it took a team of Oxford scientists to take his work to the next level a decade later.

Dr Eric Sidebottom of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology knew Norman Heatley personally. He talked BBC Oxford through the formation of the team whose work would change the world forever.

"Howard Florey had been appointed Professor of Pathology in 1935. His first job was to bring in various scientists to get the place going.

"He wanted a varied team, so one of the first people he brought in was a biochemist, Ernst Chain, from Cambridge, a German emigré.

"He and Florey decided to work on antibacterial substances. Chain rediscovered Fleming's paper and persuaded Florey that they should repeat that work and look at Penicillium mould.

"So Chain gets the credit for pushing Florey into looking at Penicillium."

Meanwhile Florey - an Australian whose father was a boot maker from Bampton - continued to increase his team and introduced another biochemist from Cambridge.

This was recent PhD graduate Norman Heatley.

Critical experiment

Dr Norman Heatley
Heatley's colleagues would receive the Nobel Prize

Picking up where Fleming left off, the team subsequently confirmed that the mould produced substances that inhibited the growth of important bacteria.

It was the height of the Second World War when they conducted a critical experiment in May 1940.

"They took their crude Penicillium extract and injected it into a series of mice that had been infected by bacteria," explained Dr Sidebottom.

"Eight mice were given a lethal dose of Streptococci and four were given penicillin.

"The four mice that were not treated all died within 16 hours.

"The four mice that were treated all survived for several days. One of them survived indefinitely.

"It was very clear on that day that this stuff was remarkable."

Norman Heatley's innovations meant that the team could extract and purify the penicillin.

"He was the key technical man. He was also the man who quantified the activity and he introduced a clever assay for measuring the strength of penicillin.

"For a long time the measurements were known as Oxford Units of penicillin."

The next step was to test the drug on humans, but a much greater quantity of penicillin was required.

Heatley discovered that the hospital bedpans he had acquired from the Radcliffe were a good place to grow the mould.

He then commissioned a pottery company to make 1,000 square bedpans so he could manufacture the amount needed.

Six 'Penicillin Girls' were employed to help grow it and by early 1941 they felt there was enough to start treating humans.

The first patient was Albert Alexander, an Abingdon policeman at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Though his condition improved they did not have enough penicillin and he eventually died.

The team then changed tact and began administering the drug to children as this required smaller amounts.

"They treated a child who was cured from his infection but died of complications.

"Then a series of patients were treated and they all recovered.

"In August 1941 this work was written up and that's when it really hit the headlines."


Joe Armstrong as Norman Heatley
Joe Armstrong played Heatley in recent TV drama 'Breaking the Mould'

Florey and Heatley flew to the US to secure mass production of the drug, after failing to get backing from any British pharmaceutical companies.

Heatley would stay on as an advisor in the research laboratories there for another year as further technical progress was made.

Before the end of the war soldiers were being treated by the new antibiotic, making a major difference to the number of deaths and amputations resulting from infected wounds.

"The whole world of antibiotics opened up," Dr Sidebottom said. "Millions of lives have been saved.

"This was the greatest medical advance of the 20th Century."

However, Norman Heatley remains an Unsung Hero.

Fleming, Florey and Chain were all awarded the Nobel Prize whilst he went uncredited.

How did Heatley feel about that?

"He was the ultimate modest man," Dr Sidebottom said.

"I think he just enjoyed the fact that he'd been involved in this important work. He knew this had saved millions of lives and I think he took pleasure from that.

"I think he would have been embarrassed if he'd become a celebrity like Fleming.

"But Fleming was not a genius. He made an important observation and he recorded it."

With the unveiling of Norman Heatley's Blue Plaque, the people of Oxford can be reminded of Heatley's pivotal role in the history of medicine and the amazing work that took place in the city.

It is also worth remembering the words of Sir Henry Harris, who succeeded Florey as Head of the Dunn School.

He said: "Without Fleming, no Chain; without Chain, no Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin."


Heatley contributed to the mass manufacture of penicillin during the war

Heatley's achievements remembered
19 Jul 10 |  History


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