Almost eighty former Beecham Research Laboratories colleagues met for lunch at Lincoln last September to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the isolation of the penicillin nucleus which, in 1957, made possible the development of life-saving ‘semi-synthetic’ penicillins.
Although Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial activity of penicillin in the 1920s, it was only as a result of later research by Lincoln Fellow, Howard Florey and his team, at the William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford, that penicillin, itself, became widely available as the ‘miracle drug’ of the 1940s.
By the 1950s, however, bacteria were becoming resistant to the original penicillin. In hospitals, staphylococci were a special problem. Some of these bacteria could destroy penicillin – which thus became powerless against them. Infection by ‘penicillin resistant staphylococci’ was commonly fatal.
The work of the Beecham Research team was highly significant in the continuing battle against bacteria. Penicillin is made up of a nucleus and a side-chain. The isolation of the penicillin nucleus, 6-aminopenicillanic acid, offered the dramatic possibility of attaching different side-chains to make new, more effective penicillins. Within just a few years, this hope had been fulfilled – most notably with methicillin, which proved highly effective against penicillin-resistant staphylococci. The introduction of these life-saving products was headline news, and still today antibiotics resulting from this research, including Amoxil (amoxicillin) and Augmentin (co-amoxiclav), remain among the most frequently prescribed medicines throughout the world.
The Lunch was held, fittingly, at Lincoln College – the academic home of Howard Florey, Norman Heatley and other members of the earlier Oxford team. Speakers at the Lunch included Dr Ralph Batchelor (see photo), the last remaining senior member of the original Research Team, who recalled that dramatic era when it took just four years from starting research at Brockham Park, Surrey in 1955, to the introduction of the first ‘new penicillins’.
Two guests with their own penicillin-history associations were invited by Beecham colleagues to join the celebration. These were: Eric Sidebottom (far left in photo), former Lincoln Fellow and Lecturer at the William Dunn School, co-author of a recent biography of Norman Heatley; and (near left) Nick Heatley, grandson of Norman Heatley, and also a former Lincoln student himself.
- Bill Smith