Sunday, January 10, 2010

Norman George Heatley

Norman Heatley was born on January, 10 1911 in Woodbridge, Suffolk, his parents' only surviving child. His father, Thomas, was a veterinarian and he would often travel with his father to the surrounding farms. From his father he inherited the ability to work on a small scale. In an era of train travel, when everybody traveling carried with them a basket with things for tea and breakage was unavoidable, the ability to repair broken crockery was a useful skill.

At age seven he was sent to boarding school at St. Felix School, near Ipswitch, which he later called, "The nearest thing to Lord of the Flies I had ever heard of." The next year he was enrolled at Westbourne House, a boarding school in Folkstone. It was there that each week an elderly man came to the school and gave Heatley and the other students a lesson on practical science. It was these "re-letter lessons of the week" which sparked Heatley's interest in science.

In 1929 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge graduating in 1933 with a degree in natural science. He stayed on at Cambridge to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, completing his dissertation on "The Application of Microchemical Methods to Biological Problems". After graduating Heatley intended to set up an analytical service but after interviewing with Howard Florey he got a temporary job doing microchemical analysis at Oxford.

Florey's group was investigating antimicrobial substances and Ernst Chain, one of Florey's workers, had found paper by Alexander Fleming about the antibacterial properties of a mold called Penicillium Notatum. Chain's role was to find the structure of the antibacterial compound while Florey would determine its effects. While it soon became clear that this new substance was more effective in killing bacteria than anything currently available, the group was hindered by the fact that there was no test to determine the activity of the new compound and the currently used methods of extracting interesting compounds from the growth medium did not work on it. Heatley was able to solve both of these problems, devising a new unit for activity, called "Oxford units", and a two step extraction process.

By May 1940 the group was convinced that they had an important new antibacterial drug on their hands, with Heatley playing a key role in the experiment that had proved its worth. Heatley had injected 8 mice with virulent bacteria, four of which also received an injection of penicillin a hour later. Overnight he watched as the four mice without the penicillin injection die and while the other four, with penicillin injections, survived. Now the problem was to be able to produce enough penicillin for the much larger human system.

Due to the war British Pharmaceutical companies were unwilling to expend effort on a project involving an unproven drug and Florey and his team were forced to carry the project out on their own. The first thought to scale up their production using glass cultureware. It was quickly discovered that this would be prohibitively expensive and the group was forced to use cheaper ceramic cultureware designed by Heatley. The process, developed by Heatley, produced a white powder that was only about 1% penicillin, but was effective in fighting bacterial infections in humans.

Because it was war time and the threat of a German invasion was real, the group had to be prepared to destroy all its work, lest it fall into enemy hands. To ensure that all would not be lost Florey and his group seeded their lab coats with Penicillium spores, which were stable for years and could be used to regenerate their work.

On June 26, 1941 Florey and Heatley, took a blacked out Pan-Am Clipper seaplane bound for New York. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had funded Florey's group, urged Florey to come to America in order to find firms that would be interested in production of the new antibacterial drug. Unable to get any drug companies to continue his research Florey soon returned to England. Heatley stayed on, working at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory in Peoria, Illinois were he was assigned to work with A.J. Moyer. Heatley soon found that Moyer was carrying out his own research, not telling him what he was doing. Later Moyer used his solo research to apply for a patent on the new drug. The English would be forced to pay royalties for the use of penicillin, which they had discovered.

Heatley returned to Britain in July 1942. He went back to Oxford where he continued his work on penicillin until 1943. In 1945 Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of Penicillin. Heatley was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Medicine from Oxford in 1990, the first given in its 800 year history. The Heatley Medal and Prize, given by the Biochemical Society, is awarded "for exceptional work that makes biochemistry widely accessible and usable, and for achievements that enable widespread progress and understanding."

Norman Heatley died on January 5, 2004.


Evans, Ruth; "Norman Heatley"; The Guardian; Jan, 8 2004

O'Conner, Anahad; "Dr. Norman Heatley, Pioneer of Penicillin Supply, Dies"; New York Times; January 17, 2004

The Heatley Prize at

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