Reserve Police Constable Albert Alexander was in a very bad way. His face was horribly swollen and covered in abscesses, his breathing was short, and he was displaying all the symptoms of acute sepsis. The situation was so serious that surgeons at the Radcliffe Infirmary had been forced to remove one of his infected eyeballs.

Hearing of the case, Ethel Florey, researcher in clinical medicine and wife of Oxford’s Professor of Pathology, rushed to notify her husband. Without hesitation he summoned a meeting of his colleagues Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley.

The patient was clearly at death’s door. Drastic and immediate action was required. The decision was taken to administer a chemical which up to that point had only been examined under laboratory conditions and tested on mice.

On 12 February 1941 PC Albert Alexander became the first human being on earth to be injected with an intravenous infusion of penicillin – 160 milligrams: 200 units.

IMG 3328 - Microbes and Medicine

The results were almost instantaneous. The swelling decreased, breathing began to return to normal, the raging temperature was quelled. ‘It was the nearest thing I ever came to seeing a miracle,’ recalled Charles Fletcher, the doctor who had carried out the procedure. But it was not to be. The quantity of back-up penicillin was insufficient to sustain his progress and Albert relapsed. He passed away on 15 March.

IMG 3722 e1586971055179 - Microbes and MedicineUrged on by his wife, Florey and his team returned to their research laboratory with renewed determination. Together they set their sights on developing a way to isolate, cultivate, extract and purify penicillin in sufficient quantity to treat the entire population. Working day and night at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology on South Parks Road (with significant funding from William Morris and the Nuffield Foundation) they eventually devised a scheme for harvesting antibiotic material of sufficient stability to be capable of mass production.

shutterstock 1625400607 - Microbes and Medicine

By the time Lord (Howard) Florey of Adelaide and Marston (Rhodes Scholar at Magdalen, Fellow of Lincoln, Provost of The Queen’s College) died in 1968, it was estimated that over 200 million lives had been saved. A stone memorial in the specially-planted rose garden opposite Magdalen College records the names of those who worked with him on the penicillin project – together with these words:


Microbes and medicine go back a long way in Oxford. The periodic plagues of the seventeenth century killed people in their thousands (Michaelmas Term had to be cancelled in 1603); but these levels of mortality were as nothing compared with the pandemic known as the Black Death which swept through Europe in the years 1347-49.

The symptoms of the contagion were hideous to behold – black boils or buboes (hence the term bubonic plague) clustered around the lymph nodes in the neck, armpit and groin. A terrible fever, sweating, sickness and diarrhoea ensued. Death followed swiftly and almost inevitably.

Conditions soon became appalling. Many communities ran out of people to dig pits and bury the bodies, leaving piles of blackened corpses to fester, rot and in turn promote more plague. Whole swathes of the country were ravaged to vanishing point. Modern Ordnance Survey maps are still peppered with signs for ‘deserted villages’ dating from this period.

Medieval Oxford, low-lying and surrounded by water-meadows and swamps, already had a reputation as a hotbed of ‘foul Disease … contracted almost in an Epidemical Manner’ as a result of prostitution and undergraduate excess, poor sanitation and cramped living conditions. The Black Death brought sickness of an altogether different order. Between a quarter and a half of the entire population of Europe was eradicated: Oxford was no exception.

IMG 3604 - Microbes and Medicine

In later centuries the town was further afflicted by waves of cholera, smallpox, typhoid fever and tuberculosis. Victorian cemeteries at the then edge of town (Holywell, Osney, St Sepulchre’s) bear witness to the persistent ravages of contagion and the fact that the graveyards of the city centre churches were already full to bursting point.

One virulent outbreak brought Oxford especial notoriety: the so-called Black Assize of 1577. Over 300 of its citizens, including the Lord High Sheriff, were smitten by a foul-smelling and deadly disease following the trial of Rowland Jenkes, a bookseller accused of ‘popish’ sympathies, who was rumoured to have put a curse on everyone in the courtroom. All three judges who tried his case were among those who died.

IMG 3531 e1586971159506 - Microbes and MedicineCometh the disease, cometh the response: the medieval treatises of ‘doctor mirabilis’ Roger Bacon; the establishment in 1621 of Britain’s first Physick (later Botanical) Garden for the collection and propagation of efficacious plants and herbs; the work on blood circulation, transfusion and respiratory disease carried out in the seventeenth century by an extraordinarily brilliant collection of Oxford scientists (including William Harvey, Thomas Willis, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke); the eighteenth-century contribution of John Radcliffe (personal physician to the king and a major patron of medical research); the nineteenth-century advocacy of Sir Henry Acland, whose Memoir on the Cholera at Oxford in the year 1854 with considerations suggested by the epidemic laid the basis for a Diploma in Preventive Medicine and Public Health. Oxford has always been at the centre of attempts to combat disease and keep the nation healthy.

IMG 3548 - Microbes and MedicineIt was a contemporary of Florey, Dorothy Hodgkin (Somerville College) who confirmed the precise chemical structure of penicillin in 1945 using ground-breaking X-ray crystallography for which she eventually won the Nobel Prize. (Of equal, remarkable importance was her revelation of the biomolecular structure of insulin in 1969, after 35 years of research.)

Another distinguished female scientist, Professor Sarah Gilbert at Oxford’s Jenner Institute, is leading the UK’s current response to the coronavirus. At this very moment more than twenty departments of the university and over 500 researchers are energetically engaged in efforts to understand different aspects of COVID-19.

Oxford’s Medical School has been ranked first in the world for pre-clinical, clinical and health studies every year for the past decade. Oxford is also home to researchers working on different forms of health equipment. Teams of graduate engineering students are engaged, for example, in OxVent, ‘a collaborative project to develop a simple but effective ventilator that can be produced in its thousands every week’.

It is in Oxford that hundreds of volunteers are being recruited to participate in an antibody test that is quick (yielding results in just half an hour – three times faster than the current best method) and accurate (with built-in checks to prevent false positives or negatives).

And it will be citizens of Oxford who are first in line, when the time arrives (soon, we hear) to trial the breakthrough vaccine that will assuredly transform life as we know it.

IMG 3465 e1586875809824 - Microbes and Medicine

morris oxford favicon 64 - Microbes and Medicine


Of the three names on the plaque adorning the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine (1945). But what of the unsung hero – Norman Heatley?
penicillin plaqueALT 1 - Microbes and Medicine

Heatley was a dapper man, charming, modest, and always (when I met him) immaculately dressed. His laboratory notebooks were written in perfect copperplate. In 1990, on the 50th anniversary of the first Oxford paper on penicillin, I suggested to the then Vice-Chancellor of the University, Richard Southwood, that Heatley’s achievement should be celebrated by the award of an honorary degree … Norman was delighted and received his honorary DM degree, the first to do so in modern times, in June 1990. Today the Royal Society of Chemistry has an annual Norman Heatley Award and Oxford’s Dunn School holds an annual Norman Heatley Lecture. A blue plaque commemorating Heatley was unveiled at 12 Oxford Road, Old Marston on 17 July 2010. – Dr Jeffrey Aronson, Consultant Physician and Clinical Pharmacologist at the Nuffield Department for Primary Care.

Jeffrey Aronson’s blog, which includes the story of how the University came to give Normal Heatley an honorary doctorate, can be found at:

He has also written about the first clinical use of penicillin:

Norman Heatley was a delightful and very modest man. Some time ago we published his memoir on behalf of the Heatley family. It is entitled Penicillin and Luck. It’s a charming read, and the opening paragraph (see below) speaks loudly to us today – Sophie Huxley & Eddie Mizzi (Huxley Scientific Press)

Sixty years ago, when I was a student at Cambridge, I most days passed a building on the corner of Downing and Corn Exchange Streets on the walls of which was incised in large capitals Louis Pasteur’s stern warning LE HASARD NE FAVORISE QUE CEUX QUI SONT PRÉPARÉS (Luck only favours those who are prepared). I took this to heart, and later was equally impressed by Paul Ehrlich’s opinion that successful research required the 4Gs: geschick (skill), geduld (patience), geld (money), and glück (luck). Unfortunately he did not explain how to acquire the last of these. It seems to me that luck – and I mean good luck, or serendipity – has played an interesting part in the early history of penicillin and I would like to offer some examples …

Image 18 03 2022 at 15.29 - Microbes and Medicine
Jo Kelly has got us puzzled:

Surely the History of Science Museum is missing a trick? A few months ago its entrance hall featured a Barbie doll of Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, the vaccinologist based at Oxford’s Jenner Institute who co-developed the AstraZeneca vaccine (over 2.5 billion doses of which have since been released to more than 170 countries worldwide.) Now that the Barbie film starring Margot Robbie is creating such a sensation, the doll seems to have disappeared. Why? Is there a conspiracy theory to be woven out of this? – JK

IMG 9117 - Microbes and Medicine