Norman George Heatley (10 January 1911 – 5 January 2004) was a member of the team of Oxford University scientists who developed penicillin. Norman Heatley developed the back extraction technique for efficiently purifying penicillin in bulk.
He was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and as a boy was an enthusiastic sailor of a small boat on the River Deben; an experience which gave him a lifelong love of sailing. He attended school in Folkestone and Tonbridge, then went on to St John's College, Cambridge, where he studied Natural Sciences, graduating in 1933. His doctoral research in Cambridge led to a PhD in 1936, and he then moved to Oxford where he became a fellow of Lincoln College and joined a team working under Howard Florey, which also included Ernst Chain.
Alexander Fleming had first discovered penicillin by accident in 1928, but at that time believed it had little application. When Florey and his team recognised the potential of the discovery for combating bacterial infection, they faced the problem of how to manufacture penicillin in sufficient quantities to be of use. Heatley, although the junior member of the team, possessed a natural gift for ingenuity and invention. It was he who suggested transferring the active ingredient of penicillin back into water by changing its acidity, this would purify the penicillin.
Heatley recorded these trials, carried out on eight mice in May 1940, in his diary:
"After supper with some friends, I returned to the lab and met the professor to give a final dose of penicillin to two of the mice. The 'controls' were looking very sick, but the two treated mice seemed very well. I stayed at the lab until 3.45 a.m., by which time all four control animals were dead."
On returning home, he realised that in haste and darkness, he had put his underpants on back to front, and noted this in his diary too, adding "It really looks as if penicillin may be of practical importance." In order to conduct tests on human patients, even more of the drug had to be produced, and again it was Heatley who realised that the most effective vessel for this purpose was something like the porcelain bedpans in use at the Radcliffe Infirmary. These were in short supply because of wartime, so Heatley designed a modified version which was manufactured in the Potteries. With the help of these, the Oxford laboratory became the first penicillin factory, and subsequent tests on human beings proved the efficacy of the new treatment. Even so, it was very difficult to produce enough for sustained treatment.
As Sir Henry Harris put it succinctly in 1998:
"Without Fleming, no Chain or Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin."
Yet while Fleming, Florey and Chain jointly received the Nobel prize for their work in 1945, Heatley's contribution was not fully recognized for another 45 years. It was only in 1990 that he was awarded the unusual distinction of an honorary Doctorate of Medicine from Oxford University, the first given to a non-medic in Oxford's 800-year history.
Penicillin (sometimes abbreviated PCN or pen) is a group of antibiotics derived from Penicillium fungi, including penicillin G (intravenous use), penicillin V (oral use), procaine penicillin, and benzathine penicillin (intramuscular use).
Penicillin antibiotics were among the first drugs to be effective against many previously serious diseases, such as bacterial infections caused by staphylococci and streptococci. Penicillins are still widely used today, though misuse has now made many types of bacteria resistant. All penicillins are β-lactam antibiotics and are used in the treatment of bacterial infections caused by susceptible, usually Gram-positive, organisms.
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