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May 19, 2003


We're all well acquainted with the three scientists who received the 1945 Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin: Alexander Fleming of St. Mary's Hospital, London, and Howard W. Florey and Ernst B. Chain of the University of Oxford. But others played a very important role. Among them is Norman G. Heatley, now 92. To recognize Heatley's efforts, Oxford University broke with tradition and gave him an honorary doctorate in 1990. Never before, in 800 years, had Oxford given an honorary doctorate. Heatley was a member of Florey's group and was responsible for a number of advances in the penicillin effort, including the design of the fermentation vessel that is now on display at ACS headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"Heatley spent a year at the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Peoria [Illinois] to bridge the English research effort with the American development program," says ACS Past-President Ed Wasserman, under whose watch the first penicillin International Historic Chemical Landmark was presented in England in 1999 (C&EN, Dec. 20, 1999, page 48). "Heatley told me that if I would come to Oxford, he would give me one of the vessels that was used to culture the organisms that produce penicillin," Wasserman says, and so he went to Oxford, and Heatley, as promised, presented him with one of the last of such vessels in existence. Wasserman is shown here with a display that features the vessel and a time line and photographs commemorating important milestones on the path to creation of the wonder drug.

"ACS has stewardship over this vessel," Wasserman says, "and we can't put it in the attic and forget it." It will be on permanent display at ACS, and Wasserman has asked the chemical companies involved in the development of the antibiotic if they would like to host the display on their own campuses.



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