'People sometimes think that I and the others worked on penicillin because we were interested in suffering humanity. I donšt think it ever crossed our minds about suffering humanity. This was an interesting scientific exercise, and because it was of some use in medicine is very gratifying, but this was not the reason that we started working on it.' (1)
Florey is best known for his work on penicillin, but there is much more to this famous Australian scientist. He was a solitary man, with few close friends; laboratory research and travel were his great loves. Interestingly, he was concerned about the population explosion caused by improving health care.
Born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1898, Howard Florey was the youngest of five children and the only boy in his family. At school he was nicknamed 'Floss', a name that stayed with him for life. He was an outstanding student, excelling at almost everything - except mathematics.
In 1917, and with a research career in mind, Florey began studying medicine at the University of Adelaide. He won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1921, and left Australia for Oxford University and to make his home permanently overseas. His boundless ambition and ability, as well as his strong character, were immediately obvious to his British colleagues:
'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 ... [but] in the years I knew him he did not once utter a word of praise about himself.' (2)
From the 1920's onward, Florey conducted a survey of naturally occurring antibacterial agents. During this time he came across a paper written by Alexander Fleming some ten years earlier, about the antibacterial effects of a mould called Penicillium.
Florey and his colleague, Dr Ernest Chain, noticed the properties and potential of Penicillium. Their Oxford research team discovered how to produce an effective and safe antibacterial agent from the raw mould juice and designed mass production methods - painstaking and extremely difficult work. Fleming, Chain and Florey were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1945 for this work.
Florey's home life was not wonderful. His wife, Ethel Reed, was a fellow Australian and clinician who helped her husband with Penicillin trials. They married in 1926 but, unfortunately, it was not a happy relationship. However, they stayed together and had two children, Paquita and Charles.
Science was the most important part of Florey's life. He spent most of his career at Oxford University, becoming Provost of Queen's College in 1962. He was knighted in 1944, and made Lord Florey of Adelaide in 1965.
Florey was elected the first Australian President of the Royal Society of London in 1960, and was known as 'the Bushranger President'. He was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1964-66, although he remained in England.
In June 1967, the year after Ethel died, Florey married Dr Margaret Jennings, his long-time colleague. Here he found a happy marriage, but it was tragically brief. Florey died suddenly, less than a year later, on 21 February 1968, aged 69.
More information on Sir Howard Florey and other Australian Nobel
Laureates can be found in the Bright Sparcs
Australian Nobel Laureates Online Exhibition
Denise Sutherland is a resource developer and site manager for Bright Sparcs, Australian Science Archives Project, Canberra Office. She has a background in science, computing and graphic design.
(1) Hazel be Berg, transcript of taped interview with Lord Howard Florey, 5 April 1967, National Library, Canberra, page 9 of 15
(2) Sir Alan Drury, Personal communications Cambridge 1970, cited in Lennard Bickel, Rise up to Life: a biography of Howard Walter Florey who gave penicillin to the world, Angus and Robertson, London, 1972, p. 24.