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June 19: Ernst Boris Chain and the Uses of Penicillin

June 18, 2015

SIA2008-0176Ernst Boris Chain, co-recipient of the 1945 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work with penicillin, was born in Berlin on this date in 1906. His father was an industrial chemist who died when Chain was 13. With the advent of Nazism in 1933, Chain emigrated to Great Britain, where he and Howard Florey explored the antibacterial agency of microorganisms and revisited the work of Alexander Fleming, who had identified penicillin in 1928. Their discovery of penicillin’s amazing capacity to destroy bacterial infection, and their improvement of its synthesis (“when Chain was doing his research it required 125 gallons of broth to produce enough penicillin powder for one tablet,” notes Dr. Jerry Bergman) resulted in their Nobel Prize, which they shared with Fleming. Chain, who lost his mother and sister in the Holocaust, became active in Jewish life in the 1950s and served as a board member for Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science. He was a skeptic about the standard theory of evolution and is often quoted in that regard by Creationists. He was also a lifelong pianist and “at virtually every career decision point through his 20s, even after he came to England,” writes the Chemical Heritage Foundation, “he entertained the possibility of becoming a professional pianist instead of a scientist.” Chain died at 73 in 1979.

“The principle of... purpose... stares the biologist in the face wherever he looks... The probability for such an event as the origin of DNA molecules to have occurred by sheer chance is just too small to be seriously considered.” —Ernst Boris Chain