Norman Heatley OBE (1911-2004): the unsung hero of penicillin

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Apparatus for producing penicillin. Wellcome Library ref. PP/NHE/A/2/1/5

Apparatus for producing penicillin. Wellcome Library ref. PP/NHE/A/2/1/5

In May 1940 Norman Heatley applied for the Philip Walker Studentship in Pathology, University of Oxford. He wrote:

Since October 1939 I have been helping Professor Florey (in collaboration with Dr E. Chain) in the investigation of the naturally occurring bactericidal agent “Penicillin”, which is formed by a certain species of mould. This material was first reported in 1929, but in spite of its obvious practical importance, — for it seems to be completely non-toxic to mammalian tissues, — practically no further work on it has been published. It is possible that during the last decade several people have begun work on this problem but have been discouraged by its apparent instability, or the difficulty of obtaining it, or the laboriousness of measuring its activity. During the last six months a technique has been worked out in this laboratory by which a steady and increasing supply of the material is assured; at the same time a method of assay many times quicker than that used previously has been evolved, and already a considerable purification of the active principle has been achieved. We have shown that enormous doses of the material can be injected intravenously into mice without harmful effects, and it is known that certain pathogenic bacteria are inhibited or destroyed by very low concentrations of it. At worst, penicillin will be a valuable bacteriological reagent for the isolation and cultivation of certain difficult bacteria; at best, it may turn out to be a therapeutic agent of the highest immediate importance (e.g. for the treatment and prevention of infection in war wounds) (Letter contained in Wellcome Library ref. PP/NHE/B/2/3).

The way in which Heatley, (as part of the team that developed penicillin), continued the “investigation of the chemical, pharmacological and bacteriological properties of penicillin” and the enormous impact the results had on millions of lives throughout the world is documented in the recently catalogued Heatley archive.

Originally consisting of just one box of material, listed and deposited in the Wellcome Library in the early 1980s (and given the collection reference GC/48), the collection was greatly enlarged by the donation of additional material from Mercy Heatley, following her husband’s death in 2004. Now comprising 30 boxes and catalogued with the collection reference PP/NHE the Heatley archive informs researchers in three main regards: it records the career of Norman George Heatley, biochemist and experimental pathologist; it forms an important source of original and retrospective material on the history of penicillin and antibiotics; undoubtedly, it conveys Heatley’s exceptional skills as a scientist as well as his personality – meticulous, modest, courteous and infinitely helpful.

The collection includes:

  • Norman Heatley’s laboratory research notebooks, including those recording breakthrough work with Howard Florey on the therapeutic effects of penicillin, in Oxford May 1940 (see PP/NHE/A/2/1/4).
  • Correspondence and papers relating to Heatley’s work in the USA during 1941 and 1942 on the development of penicillin and promotion of its large scale production.
  • Notebooks and papers relating to Heatley’s other biochemical research work, including his design and development of a new microrespirometer from the 1930s onwards, research on non-ionic detergents in the early 1950s, work in Oxford on Staphylococcal Delta-Haemolysin in the mid-1960s, and secondments to laboratories in the USA to work on secretin and pancreozymin, 1962-1963 and 1968.
  • Publications and writings by Norman Heatley spanning his entire career.
  • Publications and writings by scientists working in the same field notably series of articles by Howard Florey and by Edward P Abraham and other scientists based at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford.
  • Section C, entitled ‘Telling the Story of Penicillin’, comprises material collected by Norman Heatley during his lifetime, much of which was generated via his contribution to or participation in antibiotic related histories, anniversaries, exhibitions, publications and broadcasts. As such, Section C may be of particular interest to those who wish to study the ways in which the discovery, development and history of penicillin and antibiotics has been recounted and portrayed in various media.

The catalogue of the Heatley archive can be searched online at through our archives and maunuscript catalogue and the papers are available to researchers at the Wellcome Library from 18 August 2010.

Author: Amanda Engineer is an archivist at Wellcome Library.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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