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Property from the Estate of Dr Norman Heatley
Proceeds to be donated to The Norman Heatley Memorial Fund, The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford.
Dr Norman Heatley, OBE DM - Penicillin's Unsung Hero
In the early 1940s, a team of Oxford University scientists, led by Professor Howard Florey, carried out pioneering research work which led to the large-scale production of penicillin - the 'miracle drug' that saved thousands of Allied troops' lives and literally millions since. Dr Norman Heatley was a key member of that team.
Born in 1911 in Woodbridge, Suffolk and with a doctorate from Cambridge, Heatley joined Florey's research team at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford in 1936. Soon after the start of World War II, work began on penicillin after Sir Ernst Chain read Sir Alexander Fleming's 1929 paper on penicillin and thought the subject worthy of further research. With limited resources in wartime Britain, the Oxford team's ingenuity was taxed to the full. Heatley was responsible for many of the technical innovations that were necessary to carry out the extremely difficult processes of purification and extraction of penicillin. He also became expert at growing the mould from which penicillin was extracted. Initially all kinds of containers were used ranging from sheep-dip tins to gallon juice bottles, biscuit tins and bedpans. The solution was a stackable rectangular ceramic vessel designed by Heatley (offered in lots 196, 198 & 200) who organised their immediate production. Heatley also monitored the experiment on mice in 1940 which first showed penicillin's great potential, and grew the penicillin for the first clinical tests on human patients in Oxford in 1941.
Britain's full engagement in the war meant that further development and large-scale manufacture of penicillin could not realistically take place here; the collaboration of the USA would be needed. Ignoring the danger, Heatley and Florey flew to the US in 1941 to share their knowledge and to try to enlist American support. Fortunately this was forthcoming, and treatment of soldiers began in North Africa in April 1943. Soon, increased production of penicillin became the second highest priority at the American War Department. Only the development of the atom bomb was considered more important. The US government encouraged chemical and pharmaceutical firms to collaborate without fear of potential antitrust violations with the result that penicillin became available in time for the closing stages of the war.
Fleming, Florey and Chain shared the Nobel prize for their work on penicillin in 1945. Various studies since the 1980s have argued that Heatley's contribution was seriously underestimated. In apportioning the credit for penicillin's development, Professor Sir Henry Harris linked the four principal scientists: 'Without Fleming, no Chain or Florey; without Chain, no Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin'. In 1990 Heatley was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Medicine - an unprecedented award from Oxford University - in recognition of his great contribution.
Norman Heatley, a kind, much loved, and self-effacing man, died in January 2004