Today, we meet a man who could grow things and make
things. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
My 1970 encyclopedia article
on penicillin says that Alexander Fleming
discovered it in 1929. Ten years later, it says,
Howard Florey formed a
team at Oxford University. They figured out how to
produce it. The article mentions no one else.
In 1990, Oxford broke precedent to give an honorary
doctorate to Norman Heatley for his work on
penicillin. Never before, in 800 years, had Oxford
given an honorary doctorate.
So who was Heatley? Author Carol Moberg tracks him
down in his garden in England. He's a slight man,
now 80, and still active. He trained as a
biochemist, but his speciality is growing things.
He leads Moberg through his yard. He shows her his
plant creations. Here's a special four-tiered,
horizontally growing pear tree, for example.
Heatley was part of Florey's team. Florey had set
out to create the first antibiotics. Heatley's task
was to produce enough penicillin for the group to
study. Not an easy job! Penicillin is terribly
unstable and hard to make.
But Heatley had just the right abilities. He knew
how to improvise. He knew how to use his hands. He
wasn't just a scientist. He had the inventive sense
of an engineer. First he created means for growing
penicillin and measuring its output. Then he
figured out how to reuse the special fungus it
But that wasn't enough. We have to separate
penicillin from the fungus. That'd stymied everyone
for 10 years. Heatley invented a new extraction
process to get the penicillin without destroying
it. Finally, he used hospital bedpans as
mass-production growth chambers.
The Oxford team announced penicillin as an
antibiotic in 1940. Their paper had six authors,
listed in alphabetical order. Heatley was the
This was the eve of WW-II. America picked up
Heatley's techniques. We mass-produced penicillin
during the war and saved countless lives with it.
Finally, in 1945, Fleming and Florey got the Nobel
Prize in medicine for their part in the work.
Now, 50 years later, Oxford honors the quiet man
who made all that possible. And Heatley says,
This is an enormous privilege since I am not
medically qualified. ... I was a third rate
scientist whose only merit was to be in the right
place at the right time.
But we know better. We know we've
underrated making and doing. We know America suffers
from too little making and doing today. It's high
time we honored this man who showed us how to make
the stuff that's saved so many lives ever since.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds