Howard Walter Florey was born on 24th September 1898 in Adelaide, Australia. He was the son of Joseph and Bertha Florey. His father was a bootmaker and ran a successful company, selling shoes all over Australia. He was the youngest of five children, and their only son. He went to school at St. Peter's Collegiate School, Adelaide, where he was nicknamed "Floss"; a name that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was an outstanding student at everything except Mathematics, and soon progressed to study medicine at the University of Adelaide. After this he left to study at Magdalen College, Oxford, when he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1921. From this point onwards his home was to be permanently overseas. On graduating in 1924, he went to Cambridge as a John Walker student. In 1925 he visited the United States on a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship for a year, returning in 1926 to take up a Felowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He held this post simultaneously with the Freedom Research Fellowship at the London Hospital. In 1927, he was appointed Huddersfield Lecturer in Special Pathology at Cambridge. From 1930-34, he acted as Professor of Pathology at Sheffield. In 1935, he became Professor of Pathology at Oxford University, and Fellow of Lincoln College. Florey's links with Lincoln, although not widely known, spanned nearly thirty years from 1934 to 1962. He was made an honorary Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1946, an honorary Fellow of Magdalen College in 1952 and Provost of The Queen's College 1962-8. He was knighted in 1944, and made Lord Florey of Adelaide (Australia) and Marston (Oxfordshire) in 1965.
While at medical school in Adelaide, he met his future wife, Ethel Hayter Reed, who was three years his junior. She was also a medical student, and subsequently became a part of his research team at Oxford during the work on penicillin. They married in 1926, but it was not a happy relationship. However, they did stay together, and had two children. Ethel died in 1966, and in 1967, Florey married Dr. Margaret Jennings, who was his long-term colleague of thirty years. This partnership was happier, but only brief as Florey died suddenly in 1968 of a heart attack, aged 69. Lady Margaret Florey died in 1994. There is a memorial stone dedicated to his memory in Westminster Abbey. The Lasker Rose Garden was established opposite Magdalen, at the entrance of the Oxford Botanic Garden in honour of Florey's achievements.
Florey was a physiologist by training and was dedicated to the application of physiological and chemical methods to pathology. The area that commanded most of his interest was the physiology of the cells in the gut, inflammatory reactions, and atherosclerosis. However, his main area of work was guided by the paper written ten years previously by Alexander Fleming, on the anti-bacterial effects of the Penicillin mould. Florey developed the unique therapeutic properties of penicillin, a development which has probably done more than any other in medical history to relieve human suffering.
The Oxford team of scientists discovered how to produce an effective and safe antibacterial agent from the raw mould juice. The purification of penicillin was achieved by Norman Heatley and Edward Abraham. Abraham later determined its chemical structure. Penicillin was first tested on eight mice in 1940, with remarkable results proving its effectiveness. Tests on humans occurred in 1941 and before long, the drug was in mass production. For their painstaking and difficult work Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir Ernst Boris Chain and Florey were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945. Chain was invaluable in the early purification and identification, but without Florey, he couldn't have continued the work. Fleming saw penicillin as an antiseptic that could be used locally, but failed to see its potential as a method of combating deep seated infections.
Florey was a solitary man, with few friends. His greatest loves were laboratory research and travel. He led his research team with skill and determination, encouraging them to pursue alternative avenues of inquiry when others proved fruitless. He was a brilliant researcher responsible for designing and developing the tests on penicillin, showing its effectiveness, and that it was safe for human use.
'A fire seemed to burn within him, and his many-sided character was never concealed. We could all see the power in him and wondered whether he would ever find the right outlet for his greatness. This was the beginning of a remarkable career and he was very determined to succeed. He could be ruthless and selfish; on the other hand, he could show kindliness, a warm humanity and, at times, sentiment and a sense of humour ... at times, he went out of his way to cut people down to size with some very destructive criticism. But I must also say that in the years I knew him he did not once utter a word of praise about himself.'
However, Florey's contribution to Oxford was not confined to scientific breakthroughs. It was through his leadership that Oxford University's first Middle Common Room for postgraduate students was established in the Michaelmas Term in 1958 at Lincoln College.