The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat Summary

Eric Lax


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Throughout the ages, war and disease have been great killers of human beings, and the story of penicillin cannot be understood without first considering these destroyers of life. Many historians of medicine have argued that the discovery and development of penicillin before and during World War II was the most important medical event of the twentieth century. The four people that Eric Lax situates at the heart of the penicillin story—Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley—were profoundly affected by the more than ten million deaths in World War I, many of them as a consequence of bacterial infections. They were also acutely aware of the more than twenty million people who perished during the influenza epidemic of 1918. By the twentieth century these and other scientists had learned much about the nature of various diseases, but they knew very little about how to cure them. Despite the disagreements, jealousies, and hatreds among the scientists most responsible for developing penicillin as a drug, these individuals managed to create an antibiotic that saved many lives during World War II and many more in the postwar period.

Lax became interested in such events after reading an obituary in The New York Times in 1999 of the first person whose life was saved by penicillin. In 1942 this thirty-three-year-old woman was dying from blood poisoning in a New Haven, Connecticut, hospital when she was given penicillin. Her complete recovery was followed by more than fifty years of fulfilling life, and her death at ninety stimulated Lax to wonder why it took so long between Fleming's recognition of penicillin's antibacterial power in the late 1920's and its use to save human lives in the 1940's. While having dinner with his British publisher, Lax mentioned his puzzlement, and the publisher told him that solving this puzzle might make an interesting book.

For the following five years Lax did research at many libraries and archives in England and the United States. Although most of the scientists in the penicillin story had died by the time Lax started his project, several of them had written their versions of the events. Lax studied these and also was able to interview Heatley over the course of several months. Furthermore, Lax was given access to Heatley's personal diaries, and this material enlivens his narrative, besides bringing belated recognition to one of the unsung heroes of the penicillin story.

Lax, who is best known for his two books on the filmmaker Woody Allen, might at first seem an unlikely person to write about penicillin. However, he also wrote Life and Death on 10 West(1984), an insider's portrayal of life in a California medical research clinic told through profiles of certain doctors and patients. The books on Allen and on the bone marrow transplantation ward combined biography with critical analyses of relevant issues. Similarly, The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat combines biographies of Fleming, Florey, Chain, and Heatley with a critical analysis of their contributions. Because Lax is neither a trained medical researcher nor a professional historian of science, he emphasizes the human elements in his quadribiographical account. As an adept storyteller, he communicates to the reader not only pertinent events in the lives of these scientists but also important chemical and medical information in its social, political, and historical contexts.

Like several scholars before him, Lax is highly critical of the mythologization of Fleming as the pivotal person in the discovery and development of penicillin. Instead, his goal is to bring out the significance of the achievements of Florey, Chain, and especially Heatley, without whose work Fleming never would have won a Nobel Prize. In 1945 Florey and Chain shared the Nobel Prize with Fleming, but, in Lax's view, Heatley was unjustly neglected.

Lax acknowledges that, in 1928, Fleming, while working in St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, discovered penicillin and recognized its ability to kill certain bacteria. After the horrors that Fleming had witnessed in World War I, he dedicated himself to discovering ways of conquering infectious bacteria. His first important discovery was lysozyme, an antibacterial agent that was useless against virulent strains. His next, more important discovery occurred serendipitously. During the summer of 1928 he left London for his annual vacation in Scotland. Upon his return he, by chance, noticed in an uncovered Petri dish a green mold in a colony of staphylococcal bacteria. Surprisingly, a clear space existed around the edges of the mold, indicating that some substance from the mold had killed the bacteria. Fleming later stated that the spore of the mold came through an open window, but scholars have discovered that the likeliest route was from...

(The entire section is 1966 words.)