May 2, 2004: Headlines: COS - Micronesia: Writing - Micronesia: Medicine: Penicillin: Booknotes: Interview with Micronesia RPCV Eric Lax, author of The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle (Part 2)

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Interview with Micronesia RPCV Eric Lax, author of The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle (Part 2)

Interview with Micronesia RPCV Eric Lax, author of The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle (Part 2)

Interview with Micronesia RPCV Eric Lax, author of The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle (Part 2)

The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle

Booknotes, C-SPAN's author interview series

May 2, 2004
The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle
by Eric Lax
Watch Program (uses Real Player)

—from the publisher's Web site
The untold story of the discovery of the first wonder drug, the men who led the way, and how it changed the modern world.

The discovery of penicillin in 1928 ushered in a new age in medicine. But it took a team of Oxford scientists headed by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain four more years to develop it as the first antibiotic, and the most important family of drugs in the 20th century. At once the world was transformed—major bacterial scourges such as blood poisoning and pneumonia, scarlet fever and diphtheria, gonorrhea and syphilis were defeated as penicillin helped to foster not only a medical revolution but a sexual one as well. In his wonderfully engaging book, acclaimed author Eric Lax tells the real story behind the discovery and why it took so long to develop the drug. He reveals the reasons why credit for penicillin was misplaced, and why this astonishing achievement garnered a Nobel Prize but no financial rewards for Alexander Fleming, Florey, and his team.

The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat is the compelling story of the passage of medicine from one era to the next and of the eccentric individuals whose participation in this extraordinary accomplishment has, until now, remained largely unknown.

Transcript of the program

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Eric Lax, what is "The Mold in Dr. Florey`s Coat"?

LAMB: What year did they marry?

LAX: They married in 1928.

LAMB: And she was deaf, you say, or going deaf?

LAX: From the time -- she had a -- she -- early on, she had a degenerative hearing disease. She also had a number of -- she had had some lung diseases that were -- that were very problematic. So she was in failing health, in a sense. Florey was notoriously uncomfortable around illness. He was a doctor, but he`s notoriously uncomfortable around illness. When she comes -- he had clearly idealized her in the five years that they were -- that they were apart. And she called him on it, on a number of occasions, but he wouldn`t respond to it or said it wasn`t the case.

But when she arrived, it was not, I think, what either of them expected. And they did marry. The first three years were, I think, pretty good for them, but the marriage disintegrated over time. There`s an astonishing memo that I found in the Royal Society papers that was a response to something she had written. They went from talking to each other to leaving notes for each other on the table as their -- as their form of communication, too. One day, this extraordinary memo comes that he responds to. Hers doesn`t exist anymore, but his does. His is 15 hand-written pages, going over everything from lunch to sexual matters to whether the marriage can -- can -- can survive to how she had disappointed him by a cavalier attitude, how -- point by point against the charges she had made. And it is -- it was -- it was breathtaking -- it`s breathtaking to read it.

I -- I -- I always have mixed feelings about using very personal papers from people. This was clearly put in the archives for somebody to read. This -- I didn`t -- you know, this was -- this was there in a box. I said, Well, if it`s there in the box, they put -- they decided what the papers are. So I quoted it at some length because it`s such a remarkable thing about the two characters.

LAMB: What was the difference in their age?

LAX: Oh, three years.

LAMB: And how long did each one of them live?

LAX: She died in 1966. He died in 1968.

LAMB: Who is this woman right here in this picture?

LAX: That`s Margaret Jennings. Margaret Jennings was -- came on as Florey`s assistant in 1935. And the two of them worked together, they collaborated on papers. She had -- she was a very good writer, so she cleaned up his prose for the papers that he published. Over a course of years, they -- in 1940, she became his mistress, and remained so throughout the next 25 years.

LAMB: Did his wife Ethel know about her?

LAX: At some point she did. It is -- it was in some ways the worst-kept secret in Oxford, but everybody had such regard for Florey that nobody kind of -- it was sort of never spoken about. It`s one of -- there`s two kinds of knowledge. There`s what you know and then there`s what you see and therefore have to acknowledge. And so if it was never seen, it was never acknowledged.

LAMB: I get the impression from some of the material you have in here that Margaret Jennings was not very well liked.

LAX: I think that`s probably true. The surviving people, anyway, from the lab had said that she could be brusque and presumptuous and sort of a tattletale on Florey. But there is a letter in there that she wrote -- that she appended to one that Florey written to Norman Heatley when he stayed behind in America for several months to work on penicillin at Merck, that I found engaging and sweet and talks -- that is -- she comes off as a very sort of caring person.

Sure, her father was a baron, and they had these sort of feudal lands. They were talking about the 80th birthday of her father and how the farmers were coming out, and the four prominent farmers are coming out in their suits and ties, the shuffling of feet and speeches being made, and the best you could have made. The best you could make, the meager celebration you could do in wartime, and there was a glass poured in a piece of cake, and the rosy-cheeked clergymen who was in attendance.

But she captured, I thought, a really interesting scene that was played out over hundreds of years in England. And she was very sweet to Norman Heatley and saying, your letter is the highlight, every one of your letters coming is the highlight of the week in the lab, both for the personal bits, which are read with great -- with great amusement, and for the scientific bits which we all read with great enthusiasm. So.

LAMB: Again, you have Florey, Dr. Florey at Oxford, and you name Norman Heatley. Who else was around? You named...

LAX: Ernst Chain.

LAMB: Ernst Chain. Now, Ernst Chain ...

LAX: Ernst Chain shares the Nobel -- chain, Florey, and Fleming eventually share the Nobel.

LAMB: In what year did they get the Nobel?

LAX: 1945.

LAMB: Here`s a picture of Dr. Chain.

LAX: Yes, a picture of Dr. Chain.

LAMB: What`s Chain`s real name?

LAX: Ernst Chain, but it`s -- he was a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to -- the initial name was Chanathan (ph), and the family immigrated from Russia to Germany. He grew up in Germany, left when Hitler came to power. Came to England to work. And was a quite brilliant biochemist.

What he brought to the work was a wonderful reductionist philosophy of taking a biological problem and reducing it to its chemical components. So by doing that, it was taking it to its simplest -- to its simplest root, and then trying to solve it from there. So he did quite wonderful work on snake venoms, for instance, that by doing that.

And that kind of philosophy was something that Florey was really looking to do. I don`t think it`s possible to really overstate how Florey set in motion and approached the medicine that really allowed this to happen, which is that you brought in people of a number of disciplines working on the same problem or different aspects of the problem. And it was not -- it was not building an elephant or a camel by committee. It was actually saying, you take this part of the elephant, you take the other part, and I`ll do this. And as a result of that, they were able to make this extraordinary stride in a very short amount of time. Because they had people with complementary disciplines that could work together.

LAMB: In the middle of all this, you say that a man named Abraham ...

LAX: Edward Abraham, yes.

LAMB: Made something like 80 million pounds from patents.

LAX: Edward Abraham, who was the chemist who came on and -- with Chain, but I think Abraham really took the lead on this, was able to get the molecular structure of penicillin. It was very -- something called the betalactin ring (ph) that doesn`t really -- hadn`t really been seen before, and made it very hard to synthesize. But once he got that, it was possible to understand how it worked and to understand the curious nature of antibiotics.

He -- the difference in patent laws, patenting was a really contentious issue between Florey and Chain, and Chain, in fact, and the whole medical establishment in England. Chain came from a German background, in which industry and academia worked together hand in hand, and patents were a natural outcome of what you did. The English law is really the reverse of it. Is that you didn`t patent. You did it and then you gave it away. It was for everyone. It was not a patentable thing to do. It was a noble thing to do, this. But Chain said, are you crazy? We`ve done this work. Somebody is going to come along and patent it if we don`t. He said the money is not for us, it goes to the Dunn School at Oxford, where they were, or to the Royal Society, or to the Medical Research Council. He didn`t care where it went. But he said, if we don`t own the intellectual rights to this, we`re going to end up paying royalties for what we`ve started, and in this he was prophetic.

Although the penicillin we know today is a step beyond what they did at Oxford, and in fact, the patent wouldn`t have lasted that long, but the idea in fact was right.

But the difference between the early 1940s, when he was doing this, and the end of 1940s and 1950 when Abraham is working on (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He`s the man who brought us the next generation of drugs in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He patented the entire betalactin (ph) ring. All of the side chains, every possibility that you could come up with, he took a patent out on that. And he made free -- he made two trusts for Oxford, one for the university, one for the Sir William Dunn school, which is the laboratory where Florey was, which is part of Lincoln College, and then he kept some for himself.

But the royalties of that over the past 50 years have been in excess of 50 million pounds. There`s a beautiful new building now behind the Dunn School that`s entirely done out of these royalties.

LAMB: And Abraham patented it where?

LAX: In England. And but held a worldwide patent on it. So the benefit -- when people realized that the English had come up with this, and somebody else had the patent on it, first the idea was sort of the Americans had pinched it, which in the end is not really true, but that was the feeling. Suddenly, the attitude toward patenting changed. But medicine changed so much after World War II. It became a much more for-profit venture.

LAMB: Who made then the money? Who made the initial big money off of penicillin?

LAX: Pfizer made a lot of money. They really solved the big problem of how to get it to grow.

LAMB: American company?

LAX: Yeah.

LAMB: Who else?

LAX: Merck, all American companies. There were a number of American, Pfizer and Merck in particular, made tremendous moneys off penicillin. Because they did, you know, they patented what they could from it, and -- Pfizer did an extraordinary thing there, is that one of the problems both in England and initially with American drug companies, talking about why it`s $600 million or $900 million, is that there`s a tremendous capital investment in machinery and equipment that you need to do -- to make this happen.

The great concern was that you would put in this initial investment, and then suddenly there would be a way to synthesize it and you would have all of this capital investment that went for naught. Pfizer was willing to take a gamble that that wouldn`t happen that quickly, and they came up with what amounted to this huge sort of washing machine.

And I`ll explain. Penicillin grew on the surface culture. It grew in half an inch of medium. And you would extract it off that, but it was really one-dimensional or two-dimensional. And the way they were doing it at the Dunn School, because there was no equipment, they had pie tins, cracker boxes, bed pans, a china plate, they had a dog bath, looking for the best vessel to grow this in.

Pfizer said, all right, here`s what we need to do to grow this basically in 3-D, it`s like brewing beer, and how do you get the oxygen to the spores? Well, you came up with something so they wouldn`t go to the top. They put in great, big blades that would keep it going around. They were shooting in air from the bottom with a high-powered hose. So as all this was being churned around, there`s very violent shaking to make sure that the air got into everything. So these mold spores, instead of just growing on the top, were now getting enough air that they could grow anywhere in this huge vat. It was like they had an aqualung.

So suddenly when you went from really surface culture, almost a single dimension, to 3-D, you were having an exponential yield on that. And out of that, then Pfizer was able to manufacture vast amounts of penicillin.

LAMB: I didn`t ask you earlier, but what`s the definition of an antibiotic?

LAX: It`s simply as this, it really is -- it`s -- against life. It`s the notion of something that kills another. So, and the notion of antibiosis is -- really only goes into the 19th century. But Pasteur had a great line, that life hinders life. That notion of life hindering life is really the basis of medicine for what you can use, what you can use in science (ph).

LAMB: I`ve got to ask you. There are two people that praise your book on the back of the book. Scott Turow and Walter Isaacson.

LAX: Yes.

LAMB: How did that get there?

LAX: When I finished this, I wanted somebody going to a bookstore to say, gosh, this is scary, you know. I didn`t want them to say, gosh, this is scary. If I thought if a novelist and a biographer could say, this is really about people, because that`s what drew me to this book, these wonderful characters, then it would not be a scary thing. I -- Scott Turow I actually know, though not well, because we`re both involved with PEN, the writers organization. Walter I met very, very briefly once, and we have a mutual friend, and I said -- our mutual friend had said that he had liked some other books that I had written, and I said, gosh, I said, in terms of somebody saying something about this book, here`s the biographer of Benjamin Franklin, who tells such a wonderful story. If he could like it, maybe the readers would say, gee, this is not a scary book. So then he wrote this extraordinarily kind -- I mean, I couldn`t have written that. My mother couldn`t have written this.

LAMB: From Woody Allen to penicillin?

LAX: Well, Woody Allen takes a lot of penicillin. So it`s not -- he`s a great hypochondriac. But I`ve also written about...

LAMB: But when did you start -- when did you do the Woody Allen book?

LAX: Well, I did a couple of them, actually. 1991 was the biography that I did of him, and I did a book called "On Being Funny" in the 1970s that was a way of looking at humor, and I used him. But then in the 1980s, I wrote a book called "Life and Death on 10 West," which was an account of doctors and nurses and patients on the bone marrow transplantation ward at UCLA. I wanted to write a book about modern medicine, about the frontier of medicine, and that was really the place to go.

LAMB: Where do you live?

LAX: In Los Angeles.

LAMB: Why Los Angeles?

LAX: Well, my wife and I -- my wife lived here in Washington when we were engaged, and we were both really from New York and thought that when we got married we`d go to New York. But I haven`t finished "Life and Death on 10 West" yet, and in the course of a four-story elevator ride, we decided to go to Los Angeles for a couple of years so I could finish "10 West," and then we`d move back to New York. And that was 1982. And we just haven`t quite gotten there yet.

LAMB: And you do writing only for a living?

LAX: Yes.

LAMB: Full-time?

LAX: Full-time.

LAMB: How did you get into it in the first place?

LAX: Through the Peace Corps, a strange way to do it. I was working -- I had been a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in Micronesia, and then I was something called a Peace Corps fellow here in Washington, with the notion that you spend a year here and then you went overseas to run a program. And Robert Rice, who was a writer on "The New Yorker" for 25 years, his father was Elmer Rice, the playwright. I was sent to Turkey to look at the Peace Corps program there. And at the time, the evaluators who did this really wrote what amounted to "New Yorker" articles about what was going on with the program. It was about the people and events, and it really read like a narrative.

And I was assigned to him. He got stuck with this Peace Corps fellow. We went to Turkey and we spent six weeks. And he called me up after I turned in my portion of the report, and he said, gosh, he said, you know, you have a flare for this. He said, my father taught me some things, and if you`d like, I`d be happy to teach you some things.

Well, you know, that was, to me, kind of along the lines of the burning bush talking to a pedestrian. And I said, OK. I guess I could spare the time, thank you very much. So that was 1970.

LAMB: Where did you go to school?

LAX: Hobart College in Geneva, New York.

LAMB: There`s a note from John Fulton. I want to ask you first who he is, back to the book, about this Nobel Prize. I mean, one of the things you get from your book is that credit was very important to so many people.

LAX: Yes.

LAMB: Do you have any sense, just from living your life, why people want so much credit?

LAX: I think with the case of -- the attitude of those at Oxford especially was, if nobody`s getting credit, it`s fine if nobody gets credit. But if some people are getting credit, we`re all human, wait a minute, let`s share this. It was not for the money. The prize wasn`t that great at the time, but it was, of course, as high an honor then as it is now.

LAMB: So what is it, like a million now?

LAX: Oh, the money now is, yes, in excess of...

LAMB: And what was it then?

LAX: Oh, it was a few thousand pounds, 3,000 pounds.

LAMB: 1945?

LAX: Yes. Maybe 8,000. But it was split between the three of them.

LAMB: And this fellow, John Fulton? What role is he playing in all of this?

LAX: John Fulton is one of the most interesting characters in this, and was instrumental in two very specific ways. One is that Fulton was completely tied -- he taught at Yale, was completely tied into the entire medical establishment of the United States, and was very highly regarded, knew everyone. He and Florey were Rhodes scholars together. And both got a first in their exams. And Florey and Fulton were very good friends. I`d say Fulton was probably the closest friend that Florey ever had. Florey was never a particularly warm, outgoing person. He would be very generous about people behind their backs, but to their face he could be just terrible. He would see you, for instance, come into the lab, he`d say, oh, Lamb, still shuffling your feet? It would just -- it would just be awful. But then behind people`s back, he`d say wonderful things.

One of his lab workers won a prize one year, he said, oh, congratulations, and then followed it up almost immediately by saying, of course, it was a very poor field this year. But as I say, at the same time would say wonderful things.

LAMB: Was that his humor or was that...?

LAX: I think it was just an awkwardness. He would catch himself being kind of emotional, and then he`d say, oh, that`s a little too personal, and then would pull -- would pull back.

LAMB: You say the Florey couple, Ethel and Howard, sent their kids to John Fulton.

LAX: Yes, Fulton came back to America after some years in England, really established himself at Yale, and he -- just to finish another point, Florey always called people by their last name, didn`t matter how long he`d done it. Fulton was the only person he called John. He was actually the only person he called by his first name, of all the letters that I was able to read, anyway.

In 1941, when the war was so bad in England, there was an evacuation offered by Yale and other colleges and universities on the East Coast, to bring children from Oxford to the United States. And Florey`s children`s were among those who came. And when Fulton saw that the Florey children`s name was on the list, he immediately sent a cable saying, may we claim them, may we take them. And Florey said, well, how wonderful, wonderfully kind of you. And they were there with them for four years.

LAMB: You have a bunch of interviews in the back, and the names are familiar. The last names -- the first names aren`t familiar. I know you know what I`m getting at here. You see a lot of Sir Henry Harris.

LAX: Yes.

LAMB: You also see -- I think there was -- I`m looking for it right now -- of course I can`t find it. Is there a Florey?

LAX: Charles Florey, the son.

LAMB: How old is he now?

LAX: 70.

LAMB: Where did you find him?

LAX: Through Norman Heatley. Norman Heatley was the last surviving member of the team. He died just in January, unfortunately. I`d hoped that he would be alive when this came out.

LAMB: But you got it in the book. That was interesting.

LAX: I got him. Yeah, he was wonderful. I spent -- I spent, oh, hours. I spent a week, a month in England for about a year and a half doing the research, and would see him on every trip. And he was just wonderful. And as a result of that, they had the Florey children out there. There is Paquita and Charles. Paquita was the daughter, slightly older, who was in Edinburgh, and Charles, who was living in the south of England.

And they, once they understood what I was doing and believed that it was OK, were really very helpful, very forthcoming, and provided me a great deal of material. And what was interesting for me is that it`s always a surprise for a writer coming in cold to something, is that often you can tell things to a family that they never knew. I came upon things that they had no knowledge of.

LAMB: Like?

LAX: A letter that Margaret Jennings wrote shortly after Howard died, explaining really why she was -- their relationship of 25 years, in a sense making the argument of why she was willing to be his mistress for this amount of time, how close they were. And when I sent it to Charles and Paquita, I said -- I explained what it was, I said, would you -- I don`t know if you`d be interested in seeing this. They said, oh, yes, absolutely.

And they were both, as Paquita said, she said we were just gobsmacked by it, we just had no idea. And she said, when my father said that he was marrying Ethel, I said to him -- I said when he was going to marry Margaret, I said, how long has this been going on? And his response was, not long.

LAMB: Here it is, right here, why don`t you read it? You got...

LAX: See, I need my glasses.


LAX: See what we can do here.

LAMB: Probably do better than I can. Now, this is from Margaret Jennings.

LAX: This is from Margaret Jennings. This was a note that was sealed in the bottom of the box, of Florey`s -- there are 300 and some boxes of Florey papers at the Royal Society.

LAMB: They were a mistress -- she was his mistress for how many years?

LAX: Twenty-five.

LAMB: They married what year?

LAX: About a year and a half. They were married for a very short period, 1967 to 1968. It was very...

LAMB: And then he died, and she lived in 1994.

LAX: Yes, that sounds right. Yes.

LAMB: How old was she when she died?

LAX: She was well into her late 80s, certainly, maybe even early 90s.

LAMB: Why don`t you read a little bit of it if you don`t mind.

LAX: "Howard had a tenderly romantic attitude towards women, which was completely stultified in his relations with his first wife. When he made me his mistress in 1940, his tender solicitude and wish to give me happiness through his physical powers, as well as by caring for me, were most touching. I was then separated from the husband who had done nothing to repair my physical and emotional immaturity. Howard understood this, and with great compassion, expressed particularly through his physical care and restraint, did all he could do to help me. And I think I made him happy. I was his dream. And I always received with melting warmth his tributes. Were they presence, or love making, or confidences which he was much too reserved to give elsewhere."

You know, what`s interesting about this, is that this person who`s described here, in all of the papers that exist between the two of them, he always addresses her as Mrs. Jennings. Her name was Margaret Jennings, through the name of her first husband, who she left after she came home one day and apparently found him in bed with a nurse. That -- but even -- even as Florey knows that he`s going to soon die, and just as they`re getting married, he writes this very formal note to her, Dear Mrs. Jennings, here it is. But that`s their whole -- if you`re looking at the formality of the man, the reserved nature of him, I was always struck by that whenever I came upon it.

LAMB: Well, the other note I wanted to read a little bit was the John Fulton on the Nobel Prize.

LAX: Yes.

LAMB: He wrote -- and who`s he writing to here, Dr. Purjey Hendanias (ph)?

LAX: Yes. There were two people -- as the prizes come in, the prize was not given for a couple of years during World War II. It was -- and then they heard in 1944 that it was going to be given for 1943 and `44, and there was a rumor that the people were really happy to spread around is that the award was going to go to Fleming and Fleming alone for this. And there was -- there was some reason to be concerned about this. At that time, the New York Academy of Sciences had made Fleming an honorary member, but not Florey, who had actually turned it into -- turned into the drug. So there was some concern that it really wasn`t clear who was responsible for this, and how much had gotten out. Fulton, who knew all these people, wrote very, very strong letters to the Nobel Committee.

LAMB: Let me read a little bit. He says, "I learned yesterday from a friend who had just flown from England that the British press has published a rumor that Fleming and Fleming alone is to be recognized for the discovery of penicillin. I sincerely and most earnestly hope that this is only a rumor. Informed opinion in this country would look upon an award to Fleming alone as most unfortunate and an almost complete disregard for credit where really it is due."

At the bottom of this, "P.S.: Our recommendation would be, in the order of preference, Florey alone," that was his friend and pal, "Florey and Chain," who we talked a little bit about, "or third, Florey, Chain, and Fleming." And in the end, the Nobel Committee did what?

LAX: They split it evenly between the three of them. What was interesting is I was able to get to the Nobel archives also to read all of the discussions that were done over this over the years. And they started off very cautiously about penicillin, said, well, let`s wait and see, was their first attitude. And then it was -- for the first year and a half, it was, well, Fleming is clearly prize worthy, and then Florey and Chain came in, and they said, we`ll divide it half and half. It will be half to Fleming and the other half to Florey and Chain. And it was really I think only the letters from Fulton and also from Henry Dale, who was the president of the Royal Society, who wrote also pretty convincing letter saying, let`s be very clear about how this happened. Let`s not sleight Fleming, but let`s not overlook the contributions of Florey, Chain and Heatley and the others.

LAMB: How long did Alexander Fleming live?

LAX: Until 1955. And he was a national hero. He was -- he`s literally a hero on every continent and on the moon, where a crater is named for him. When he died, it was literally a national hero passing. From the earliest time, Fleming really became the only face associated with penicillin, in part I think because as the biographer Wynn McFarland (ph) said, he`s kind of a wonderful sort of anti-hero. After the war, you were looking for somebody other than -- but he`s in -- he`s buried in St. Paul`s, in the company of 200 great heroes.

LAX: Now, if you go to a doctor today, when are you more often to get penicillin?

LAX: Less and less on penicillin, because it`s moved on, although it has -- it`s enjoying kind of a renaissance now.

LAMB: You get it for what, though?

LAX: Oh, infection, bacterial infections.

LAMB: Mouth or shots?

LAX: Shots. One of the problems -- they learned early on that the stomach acid kills the active ingredient. So the best way to do it is just give it intramuscularly. And the best way, actually, was just a drip, when they were -- because you want to keep a steady stream in the blood. So when they were first doing it, just a steady drip would often work very well.

LAMB: This is way out of context, but it was an interesting little part of your book, and that is Peoria, Illinois. We don`t have much time.

LAX: Oh, yes.

LAMB: How did Peoria, Illinois in the middle of all this figure?

LAX: Yes, the Northern Research Laboratory, put up by the -- from the Department of Agriculture was doing a great deal with fermentation. They were trying -- and it was clear that what needed to be done was essentially what you`re doing when they were doing (UNINTELLIGIBLE), it`s a fermentation problem, it`s a brewing problem. And so they were looking for effective ways to do it. So that`s where so much was going on, and they used this substance called corn steep (ph) liquor, which was left over from when you made cornstarch and other things. And there`s this tremendous amount of gooey waste that if you couldn`t find something, you`d have to dispose of it. Well, corn steep (ph) liquor turned out to be a great medium for...

LAMB: And who went to Peoria?

LAX: Both Fleming -- I`m sorry, both Florey and Heatley, and then Heatley stayed on.

LAMB: And last couple of questions. The Rockefeller Foundation played what role in the money for all this?

LAX: Not only just the money. I think the Rockefeller Foundation`s imprimatur on this was really the difference between penicillin being developed or not. I don`t think you can overstate what they did. Not only their support of Florey, whom they had known for a long time and whom they`d valued very highly, but also the imprimatur of his -- of their supporting his coming to the United States, and that coupled with John Fulton, who was able to use both their backing and his own contacts to really -- here two people who come over, don`t really know anybody here, and are suddenly introduced to the heart of the scientific establishment. And it was that imprimatur that allowed them to go forward.

LAMB: You`ve dedicated this book to your son John?

LAX: Yes.

LAMB: How old is he? Where is he?

LAX: He`s 14, he`s in Los Angeles. I have two sons. Simon. Simon got the last book so it`s...

LAMB: And how old is Simon?

LAX: Simon`s 17. And interesting, Simon`s the one who is actually interested in biology and biochemistry, but you know, you never know what you`re going to write, so.

LAMB: What`s your next book?

LAX: I`m working on it now. Something completely different I think is the only way to -- it`s an idea that I haven`t quite figured out, but it`s neither show business nor medicine.

LAMB: Is it about a person?

LAX: It`s about -- it`s about an idea.

LAMB: We`ll just leave it at that. The story of penicillin is the subject of this book. It`s called "The Mold in Dr. Florey`s Coat," and our guest is its author, Eric Lax. Thank you very much.

LAX: My pleasure, thank you.


noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.

The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle
Publisher: Henry Holt
ISBN: 0-8050-6790-6

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Story Source: Booknotes

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Micronesia; Writing - Micronesia; Medicine; Penicillin



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