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Lincoln College

Norman Heatley (1911 - 2004)

Honorary Fellow of Lincoln College

Although Alexander Flemming discovered the penicillin mould in 1928, it was a dedicated team of researchers in Oxford who developed it during the Second World War as a viable antibiotic for medical use. Amongst them was Norman Heatley, a graduate in biochemistry from the University of Cambridge, who worked at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.

Under the guidance of Howard Florey, who was eager to use science as a weapon against infection during the war years, Heatley set to work extracting penicillin and producing a stable, brown powder. Skilfully he developed a method for obtaining the penicillin without damaging it and affecting its potency. In May 1940, he tested the drug on mice injected with virulent streptococci bacteria. Those mice treated survived and thus he successfully demonstrated penicillin's antibiotic efficacy.

The team were aware however, that in order to attempt clinical trials on humans, the production of penicillin had to be seriously scaled up. Britain's chemical industry was reluctant to devote time and money to such a purpose since they were absorbed in fighting the war. It was up to Heatley therefore to develop a mass production system in Oxford.

Vessels for the fermentation process were in short supply but Heatley managed to procure a number of hospital bedpans from the John Radcliffe Hospital. Initially he used these along with old biscuit tins and trays but ultimately a set of uniform containers for culturing the mould would be required. Based on the bedpan, a ceramic vessel that could be easily stacked and sterilised by autoclaving was designed. Trials proved them to be effective and by Christmas Day 1940, Heatley had begun his large-scale production of penicillin.

Over the coming months he dedicated himself to the refinement of his production process in order to increase yields. In early 1941, penicillin was tested on patients by Florey and was shown to be very effective at treating infection in humans. However, trials were hampered by the short supply of the drug, making the need for increased manufacture even more urgent. Heatley spent the latter half of 1941 working to this end with Dr A. J. Moyer in the US. Unfortunately he was double-crossed by Moyer when it came to publishing their results and much of the ensuing financial rewards from penicillin went to the US.

On his return to the UK in July 1942 Heatley accepted a position elsewhere but was soon persuaded by Florey to continue researching antibiotics amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford. In 1948 he became one of the first Penicillin Research Fellows at Lincoln College and he remained at Lincoln until his retirement in 1978 when he was elected a Supernumerary Fellow and awarded an OBE.

Working as part of the 'penicillin team' in Oxford, using his great inventiveness and improvisation during the war years, Heatley contributed significantly to the development of one of the world's revolutionary drugs. He passed away on 5th January 2004, aged 92, after a very successful scientific career spent in Oxford's Dunn School.

Caroline Iddon