Keywords: Medicine, popular science, biography

Title: The Mould in Dr. Florey's Coat

Author: Eric Lax

Publisher: Abacus/Owl Books

ISBN: 0349117683


Who discovered penicillin? If you answered Alexander Fleming then you're in good company. Fleming is the man usually credited with the discovery of the first anti-biotic, just in time to save countless live during the second world war. However, popular acclaim and the truth don't always coincide, and in this case the story of the discovery and harnessing of penicillin is more complex than that of a single scientist working on his own for the good of humankind.

Eric Lax sets out explicitly to correct the myths that have arisen about Fleming and penicillin. Credit is due to many others, and Lax wants to share it out to these others who have all but been erased from the popular historical record. It's an interesting story, of scientific inquiry, technical ingenuity and a dogged persistence by Dr Howard Florey and his co-workers in Oxford to go from laboratory curiosity to wonder-drug.

There is no denying the work that Fleming performed in identifying the peculiar mould that seemed to be able to destroy bacteria. Initially he was convinced that a substance derived from mould - which he named penicillin after the Penicillium fungus from which he created a filtered broth - could have important medical uses. However, after working with the substance for a number of years, he abandoned it in the early 1930s.

Penicillin might have remained nothing more than a vaguely interesting by-way in science had it not been for the work of Australian scientist Howard Florey and his team at Oxford, including Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley, Arthur Gardner and others. Together this was the team that finally turned penicillin into a drug that could be manufactured in bulk, prescribed safely with few side-effects and easily administered. Along the way they solved plenty of technical and logistical problems, not least because they were constantly struggling with lack of funding.

Lax tells a good story. There is plenty of drama in the struggle of Florey and his team, and the personalities of the different protagonists are finely drawn. Lax describes the advance of the second world war and the race against time to prove the efficacy of the drug but also to find ways in which it could be manufactured on a large enough scale to be useful.

Fleming returns to the story once the new anti-biotic is hailed as the miracle cure that it was. Lax describes the politics and the process in which the press seized on him as a genius, the lone individual who's discovery had changed the world. The tensions, resentment and anger that this popular acclaim caused with Florey and his team is well-described. The injustice is well-described, and Lax is to be commended for wanting to right it and set the record straight.

However, this is not just an exercise in correcting the academic record. The book is gripping, the characterisation is sharp and the narrative drive keeps the reader hooked. It's a great read above all else. Recommended.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published October 11 2006