One discovery that changed the world

In 1940, Howard Florey’s newly created drug cured four infected mice—and changed the course of medical history. Penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, has since saved an estimated 200 million lives.

Florey, we’re proud to say, started his journey at the University of Adelaide, where he continues to inspire generation after generation of dedicated health researchers and students.

Howard Florey was born in Adelaide in 1898 and entered the University in 1916, continuing his studies through scholarships when his family faced financial hardship.

Howard Florey outside Bonython Hall recieving honorary MD

Howard Florey outside Bonython Hall, prior to receiving an Honorary MD 

Here he was encouraged to learn through enquiry, step outside conventional limits of knowledge and take a multidisciplinary approach to studying anatomy. He graduated in 1921 with a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery and was elected Rhodes Scholar the following year.

After securing a first-class-honours degree in physiology at Oxford University, Florey began applying physiological principles to the study of disease and became one of the world’s first experimental pathologists. He was considered by his colleagues to be brilliant, blunt and incisive, always insisting on a clear question before performing an experiment.

In 1926 Florey married a fellow Adelaide medical student, Ethel Reed—an equally strongminded practitioner who would later take charge of penicillin’s first clinical trials. He also recruited a biochemist, Jewish refugee Ernst Chain, to help him comb the scientific literature for possible anti-bacterial agents. It was Chain who suggested they look further into Sir Alexander Fleming’s “accidental discovery” of a mould with germ-killing properties.

Florey’s great breakthrough came in 1938, when he and his team successfully isolated Penicillium notatum’s antibacterial activity in animals. His world-changing experiment showed that while untreated mice with virulent streptococci died within 16 hours, penicillin-injected subjects survived.

Howard Florey sitting at desk

Lord Howard Florey, 1930's

After further intensive research and trials, the antibiotic went into mass production in 1944, just in time for the Allies’ World War 2 Normandy landing. For military surgeons, penicillin seemed miraculous, enabling dramatically faster treatment and recovery by virtually eliminating infection. It saved countless thousands of soldier’s lives and undoubtedly helped influence the war’s outcome.

In 1945 Florey, Chain and Fleming were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. For his part, Florey accepted the award with famous humility, describing his achievements as ‘a terrible amount of luck’.

Today, penicillin is recognised as one of the greatest medical discoveries of all time, and Florey’s remarkable efforts, spirit and legacy continue to light the way for world-renowned health research at the University of Adelaide.

“I can’t think of a better role model for our researchers and students as they take on some of humanity’s greatest modern health challenges,” says University Vice Chancellor and President Peter Rathjen.

“Rest assured, we’ll continue following Howard Florey’s outstanding example by enhancing global health through research—now and into the future.”

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