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Men who turned mold into a miracle

June 12, 2004|Gina Nahai | Special to The Times

On a quiet evening in the spring of 1940, at a lab on the Oxford University campus, a young British scientist is witnessing nothing short of a miracle. For months now, he and his colleagues have watched a certain strain of common mold, Penicillium notatum, eradicate the bacteria responsible for some of the most fearsome, devastating illnesses that plague man.

They spent the previous week filling sandbags to barricade the lab and to stack up in the air raid shelter at the Dunn School where they work, and now they guard the place day and night to save it from possible fire from German bombs. They know that a certain agent in the mold, which they call penicillin, is effective when applied to bacteria on a petri dish; they don't know if it will work on humans or animals.

On the morning of May 25, just as 350,000 Allied soldiers are trapped in northern France along the coast by Dunkirk, the scientists -- an Englishman, an Australian and a German Jew on the run from the Nazis -- inject eight mice with a deadly organism, then administer penicillin to four. The Englishman, Norman Heatley, keeps watch that night.

By 3:45 a.m., he has arrived at three conclusions: that penicillin is the answer to a hundred years of doctors' prayers; that the only way to develop a viable drug from it is by continuing to work on the strain of mold in existence only at this lab; and that, with the Nazis advancing toward England and Neville Chamberlain advocating a surrender, they may well have to destroy the miracle mold to prevent it from falling into German hands.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Drug name -- A June 12 Calendar section article about author Eric Lax and his book "The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat" should have said that researcher Alexander Fleming came to believe that the cure for infections would be found in sulfa drugs, not sulfur drugs.

In an impeccably decorated living room in Los Angeles, Eric Lax talks about the moment he conceived the idea for the new book "The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat." It was 1999; he had flown from Los Angeles to New York on his way to Poland for a meeting of International PEN -- a worldwide association of writers and poets dedicated to defending freedom of expression and writers who are persecuted.

In New York that day, he read an obituary for Anne Miller -- the first person to have received antibiotic treatment. Miller had been near death for weeks before she was administered the then-new drug in 1942. She lived another 57 years before the New York Times would devote, in Lax's words, "two columns and a picture" to her obituary.

The article mentioned that Alexander Fleming had observed the curative powers of penicillin in 1928 but went on to say that the drug itself had been developed some 14 years later by "scientists at Oxford."

"I started to wonder who these unnamed people at Oxford were and why I hadn't heard of them," Lax says, "and why it had taken 14 years for Fleming's observation to result in the development of a drug, so I started looking."

Though little had been written on the subject, Lax quickly learned that Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Heatley, who had taken Fleming's observation and from it arrived at antibiotics, had met with little recognition while Fleming, who had abandoned the search, became an international star and even had a crater on the moon named after him.

Once home from Poland, Lax ran the penicillin idea by his longtime friend and sometime literary critic, director Walter Hill, whose enthusiasm, Lax recalls, was less than expansive.

This would be no Grisham novel, Hill warned. It would mean years of research, most of which would have to be done in England. Lax would have to find a way to explain complicated scientific concepts in language that was accessible to the layperson, and do it in a way that kept the reader's interest.

A member of the Sulzberger family of New York Times fame (his wife, Karen, is publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s sister), Lax has, for decades, lived among the most exciting literary and journalistic figures of the time. He saw in the penicillin story not just a simple account of a scientific discovery, but a human drama on a grand scale: The world is at war. For centuries, men have died from simple infections -- tonsillitis, diarrhea, scarlet fever -- and from gonorrhea and meningitis, from diphtheria and gas gangrene. Of the 10 million soldiers who died in World War I, about half were felled by infection from relatively minor wounds. Late in the summer of 1928, Fleming had observed that a certain bit of mold in his lab at St. Mary's Hospital in London was responsible for killing the bacteria on a petri dish, but he was never able to isolate the active agent in the mold or to understand how it interacted with the bacteria. The one paper he delivered about his observation went entirely ignored by the scientific community and even Fleming came to believe that the cure for infections would be found in sulfur drugs.

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