Top 10 Unknown Facts about Sir Howard Florey


Howard Florey- Photo by Australian News and Information Bureau- Wikimedia Commons

He was an Australian pathologist responsible for the isolation and purification of penicillin for clinical use, working with Ernst Boris. Sir Howard Florey had humble beginnings; he was interested in chemistry from a tender age. Florey was born to Joseph and Bertha Florey and led a comfortable life in Adelaide.

Howard was successful in school- he was good at sports and also excelled academically. He won several university scholarships and participated in competitive sports. His interest in chemistry led him to various occupations and positions that had him inclined toward the success that he enjoyed. Here are some top 10 unknown facts about Sir Howard Florey.

1. Howard Florey Revolutionized Medical Science

3D representation of penicillin structure- Photo by Bassophile – Wikimedia Commons

While Alexander Fleming is known for the discovery of penicillin, it was Howard Fleming that rendered it useful. He, together with Ernst Boris Chain extracted a pure form of it from Fleming’s discovery of the mold which contained it. The Mold inhibited the growth of bacteria.

This pure form of penicillin was essentially a potent antibiotic still in use.

2. Sir Howard Florey ‘Loved’ Anti- bacteria

Antibiotic resistance tests- Photo by Dr Graham Beards- Wikimedia Commons

Florey’s interest in chemistry as established was rather quick. He particularly worked on naturally occurring antibacterial substances. Sir Howard Florey’s most popular work was around Lysozyme, which is an antibacterial substance present in saliva and human tears. He collaborated on this with Ernst Boris Chain. They investigated the properties of naturally occurring anti- bacteria, which led them to their study and work on penicillin.

3. Sir Howard Florey Received A Nobel Prize

For his outstanding transformation of penicillin, Florey received the honor of a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945. Florey conducted the pioneer clinical trials of penicillin at the Oxford Radcliffe Infirmary in 1941. He shared this prize with Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Alexander Fleming- the former worked with him on the transformation of penicillin to a pure form while Fleming discovered the mold that contained penicillin. Sir Howard Florey, together with Chain and others devised methods of mass-producing penicillin.

4. Howard Florey Carried The Title ‘Knight’

At his knighting in 1944, Florey was made a life peer. He assumed the title of baron in 1965. ‘Knight’ is an honorary title given to an individual by the head of state or their representative for service to the country, church, or monarch.

5. Florey Received Multiple Acknowledgements

Florey Plaque at a shopping center- Photo by MarkGallagher- Wikimedia Commons

While the Nobel Prize in Physiology that Sir Howard Florey received was a big one, the pathologist had a large number of awards in his honor from scientific bodies and other institutions alike. Howard was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1941. The Society is the oldest such society in Australia. He received the Lister Medal in 1945 in recognition of his work with penicillin and its application, and its importance to surgical science.

Additionally, the Swedish Medical Society recognized him and honored him with the Berzelius Medal in 1945. The Russian Academy of Sciences gave its highest honor to Sir Howard Florey in 1965, a gold medal and a diploma.

Other awards Sir Howard Florey received include Légion d’honneur (France), Medal of Merit (USA), Wilhelm Exner Medal (Austria), the Copley Medal, and the British Medical Association old Medal among others. One can say Florey was well decorated.

6. At Home With Sir Howard Florey

Away from the groundbreaking pathologist persona, Florey started oil painting in his late 50s!

He enjoyed classical music and loved gardening. Sir Howard Florey just might have fit right into the current vlogging trends if he was alive today as he loved photography and shooting home movies. Florey’s hobbies and likes reveal a much softer and gentler side to him, which also came across in how he handled his success.

7. Florey Did Not Patent Penicillin

Sir Howard Florey had all the rights to lay claim to the revolutionary penicillin- he however chose not to patent it nor patent any parts of the processes for its production- he thought it unethical to patent something that would help people.

One of his experiences that may have shaped his position on patenting was his travels to North Africa in 1943, for Penicillin trials on soldiers injured in the war. Many allied soldiers’ lives were saved as a result.

8. Howard Florey Was Responsible For The Minimal Acknowledgement Of His Work

Penicillin is mostly associated with Alexander Fleming who is also mostly credited with the same. Florey was, however, as already established, responsible for making it usable through purification.

When the Penicillin team got a breakthrough, Fleming spoke widely about it, publicizing it. Florey on the other hand kept off the media and asked his team to do the same as he knew they had very little supply and was worried about the public’s expectations. The result was that Fleming became more associated with the discovery of penicillin, and was credited with it at Florey’s expense.

The shared Nobel Prize did not help or even out the situation- Howard Florey and Boris Chain lost out on popularity and sometimes acknowledgment for their major part of the puzzle which was penicillin.

9. Sir Howard Florey Ran A Mini Penicillin Factory

Howard Florey Institute in Victoria- Photo by Melburnian- Wikimedia Commons

Florey petitioned British drug firms to produce penicillin as they had the manpower and equipment at the height of the war. His efforts however didn’t yield any results. Florey decided to roll up his sleeves and do the work himself- he turned his laboratories into a small penicillin factory for production. He went on to produce enough of it to run clinical trials. As a reward for his hard work, the trials yielded positive results.

10. Sir Howard Florey Was Modest

Howard Florey- Photo by Australian News and Information Bureau- Wikimedia Commons

From turning down public relations efforts to put out his work and achievement, Howard Florey found it difficult to accept praise as an individual. He was all about the team and group effort- he wished more for group recognition as opposed to recognition for him as an individual as he didn’t work alone.

Florey died in 1968 at age 69. During his memorial service, his colleague Edgar Adrian spoke about this trait that Florey exhibited as he worked- modesty about his great achievements.


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