Happy Birthday Ernst Chain: An unsung hero of penicillin discovery

On this day in 1906, a pioneer of modern biochemistry and microbiology was born.

Like Comment

Alexander Fleming returned back to the lab bench after a family holiday to find his cultures contaminated with a fungus. We know how the story goes. 

He saw inhibition. 

He called it penicillin.

He revolutionised medicine. 

He received a Knighthood.

He received the Nobel Prize.

The story has been told and simplified countless times. Alexander Fleming is undoubtably an important figure in modern medicine, but the story of penicillin is more complicated than most people realise. 

When Fleming identified penicillin, he couldn't do anything with it. He couldn't isolate it or purify it. As revolutionary as his observation was, it had no practical application whatsoever. It was only when a team of biochemists started to revisit Fleming's work that penicillin became a life saving drug.

Howard Florey and Ernst Chain started to purify penicillin in work that would lead to them both receiving the Nobel Prize alongside Alexander Fleming. This would be the first time that the Nobel Prize for Medicine had ever been awarded to three people at once. Chain not only significantly contributed to the purification and concentration of penicillin, but he was also the first person to correctly guess the beta-lactam structure. This wasn't proved at the time but his guess was shown to be right by Dorothy Hodgkin, the Nobel Prize winning crystallographer. 

You can read a Biography of Ernst Chain on the Nobel Prize website as well as watch a short interview with Olof Somell from the Nobel Museum

Ben Libberton

Science Communicator, Freelance

I'm a freelance science communicator, formerly a Postdoc in the biofilm field. I'm interested in how bacteria cause disease and look to technology to produce novel tools to study and ultimately prevent infection.