The ‘stuff that almost brings people back from the dead’

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By | From the Collections

An exhibition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first human trials of penicillin has recently opened at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. ‘Back From The Dead‘ traces the “miraculous and precarious” nature of antibiotics from the 1940s onwards, placing the story of penicillin in the context of today’s growing concerns about antibiotic resistance and ‘superbugs’.

 Glass phial of British Standard penicillin, London, England, Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images British Standard penicillin was defined as one milligram of penicillin containing 1,600 International Units. An International Unit is defined as the potency or activity of a drug. The standard was set by the National Institute for Medical Research. International Standards were set in 1944 and in 1952. Standardisation of drugs such as penicillin is important to ensure the quantity and quality produced and given to patients is consistent all over the world. maker: National Institute for Medical Research Place made: London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom made: 1946 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Glass phial of British Standard penicillin, London, England,1946. Image credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images reference: L0059573.

This ‘bijou’ exhibition located in the basement of the Museum includes two items on loan from the Wellcome Library. One is a detailed experimental notebook covering July 1939-March 1940 and the other, a ledger recording chemicals and equipment for the large scale growing and isolation of penicillin, May-October 1940. Both items are from the archive of Norman Heatley (1911-2004).


The ‘penicillin reunion’ meeting of Heatley (far left), Lady Florey, Charles Fletcher, Sir Edward Abraham and Kenneth Jones (early patient) outside Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. Photograph by Norman McBeath,1991. Wellcome Library reference: PP/NHE/C/6/4.

It is fitting that Heatley, whose contribution to the development of penecillin has been overlooked in the past, should be represented in this exhibition. He was part of the team of Oxford scientists who recognised the significance of Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin. In austere wartime conditions, under the leadership of Australian pathologist Howard Florey and working with German-born refugee biochemist Ernst Chain, Heatley worked doggedly and inventively to produce enough penicillin to conduct human trials in 1941. The success of these trials established penicillin as a potential ‘wonder-drug’ to cure a myriad of lethal bacterial infections. Heatley was also key in developing processes, in the USA, for synthesising penicillin for mass production.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Chemicals and Equipment for large scale growing and isolation of penicillin (Green Ledger, page 23), 1940. Wellcome Library reference: PP/NHE/A/2/1/14.

Tracing developments in our understanding of penicillin, the exhibition also highlights the role of Oxford biochemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994), a contemporary of Florey, Chain and Heatley. In 1941 Hodgkin wrote to her husband:

“I’ve just come back from visiting Chain and … I’m feeling disgustingly cheerful. The main purpose of Chain I may say is that he works on penicillin – you may remember the stuff … that almost brings people back from the dead”

In 1945, using the technique of x-ray crystallography, Hodgkin and her colleagues solved the molecular structure of penicillin, although her work was not published until 1949. Hodgkin’s molecular model of penicillin is displayed in the exhibition. (Dorothy Hodgkin also solved the structure of Vitamin B12 and insulin and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 for her development of protein crystallography.)

Image credit: Science Museum, London.

Dorothy Hodgkin’s model for the structure of penicillin. Image credit: Science Museum, London.

 The exhibition features objects in the Museum’s own collection from the Dunn School of Pathology, Oxford, where Florey’s team were based. This includes items Norman Heatley commandeered in which to grow penicillin, such as biscuit tins, sheep dip containers, pie dishes and bed pans.


Heatley’s ‘Bedpan’ for growing penicillin. Photograph by Amanda Engineer.

Anything with a large surface area where the mould could ferment, grow and be safely extracted. Finding them inadequate, Heatley designed his own ‘custom-made’ version of the porcelain bedpans used in the Radcliffe Infirmary, ordering enough (from Staffordshire Potteries firm James Macintyre and Co Ltd) to churn out significant amounts of penicillin for trialling. (The team later moved on to milk churns). By 1944 there was enough penicillin to supply the entire D-Day landing force – and to cure many a soldier from embarrassing personal afflictions…

Penicillin poster

Advertisement for penicillin as a treatment for gonorrhea, c.1944. Image source: Wikimedia commons.

‘Back From The Dead’ is an absorbing exhibition with something for everyone. Traditional glass cases of artefacts and archives sit alongside interactive wall displays and the work of bioartist Anna Dumitriu, Artist in Residence at the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project, University of Oxford. Dumitriu’s work ‘Ex Voto’ is described as a “growing participatory artwork” which “explores the impact of infectious diseases and antibiotics on our lives through the making of votive offerings created by the artist, exhibition visitors, patients, scientists and medics during story sharing discussions”. These votives are “hung on ribbons, stained or dyed with sterilised bacteria”.


Anna Dumitriu’s artwork ‘Ex Voto’. Photograph by Amanda Engineer.

At the end of the exhibition visitors can contribute to current research on the use of antibiotics by completing an interactive questionnaire.

Events linked to the exhibition include a series of gallery tours and evening talks, including ‘Unlocking the Medieval Medicine Cabinet’, which explores whether new antibiotics could be hidden in historic texts, 26 January 2017.

The exhibition runs until 21 May 2017. Admission is free.

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