Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Florey, Howard Walter (1898–1968)

by Frank Fenner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Howard Walter Florey (1898-1968), by unknown photographer, c1960

Howard Walter Florey (1898-1968), by unknown photographer, c1960

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23609885

Howard Walter Florey, Baron Florey of Adelaide and Marston (1898-1968), medical scientist, was born on 24 September 1898 at Malvern, Adelaide, third and youngest child and only son of Joseph Florey, a boot manufacturer from England, and his second wife, native-born Bertha Mary, née Wadham. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter and the University of Adelaide (M.B., B.S., 1921; M.D., 1944), Howard sailed for England in 1921 as a Rhodes scholar. At the University of Oxford (B.A., B.Sc., 1924; M.A., 1935), he studied in the honour school of physiology under Sir Charles Sherrington who became an 'influential guide and friend'. Florey transferred in 1924 to the University of Cambridge (Ph.D., 1927; M.A., 1928), spent ten months (1925-26) in the United States of America, then worked in London.

While a student in Adelaide, Florey had met Mary Ethel Hayter Reed (1900-1966). After a prolonged correspondence she joined him in London. They were married on 19 October 1926 at Holy Trinity parish church, Paddington; the marriage was to be unhappy, due in part to her poor health and in part to his intolerance. From 1927 Florey lectured in the pathology department at Cambridge where he worked on his doctoral thesis on the flow of blood and lymph. In 1931 he was appointed professor of pathology at the University of Sheffield. Four years later he moved to a similar post at the Sir William Dunn school of pathology, Oxford; he was to remain in it until 1962 when he resigned to become provost of The Queen's College.

Florey's appointment to the Oxford chair was a milestone in the history of pathology in the British Empire because, for the first time, a man trained in experimental physiology who looked at pathology as disordered physiology attained a position of influence in the subject. Encouraged by Florey's presence, a succession of young Australians went to the Oxford department for their postgraduate education.

Although Florey made advances in many fields of experimental pathology, by far his greatest contribution to science was the development of penicillin as a systemic antibacterial agent, thus inaugurating the antibiotic era. At Cambridge he had studied natural antibacterial substances, notably lysozyme, an enzyme that had been discovered by (Sir) Alexander Fleming in 1922. Recognizing the need for biochemical expertise to purify the enzyme, Florey recruited (Sir) Ernst Chain to his research team.

In 1938-39 Florey and Chain jointly initiated a systematic investigation of the biological and biochemical properties of antibacterial substances produced by bacteria and fungi. They eventually selected penicillin, discovered by Fleming in 1928, for detailed examination. It proved so promising in experiments on mice infected with streptococci and staphylococci that all the resources of the laboratory were devoted to its production on a scale that would allow testing on humans. The difficulties in wartime Britain were immense, but, due to the enterprise of Florey's team and a variety of 'Heath Robinson' contraptions, enough penicillin was prepared to carry out clinical trials in 1941. The results were so dramatic that assistance was sought from British industry, which proved inadequate to the task. Penicillin for the treatment of war casualties was first produced in the United States of America. Its effects were miraculous.

Despite living in Britain since the age of 23, Florey remained Australian in accent and outlook. In 1944 he visited Australia to discuss the local production of penicillin and to report on the state of medical research in the country of his birth. He produced a paper that played a major role in establishing the Australian National University. From 1947 to 1957 he was closely connected with the development of the university, particularly of the John Curtin School of Medical Research. Offered the directorship of the school in 1948, he temporized and did not finally decline until 1957. Meanwhile, as 'adviser' to the school (1948-55), he was effectively its non-resident head. He opened the school's permanent building in 1958 and became chancellor of the university in 1965.

Florey was reserved, but sure of himself. A splendid experimentalist, he had no liking for speculation or abstract ideas. He was intensely hard-working and expected the same devotion from his colleagues and students. Although he had no time for administrators—'paper-shufflers', as he called them—when thrust into senior administrative positions he proved to be an excellent chairman. He was a man of vision and above all a man who got things done: 'few people can have made better use than Florey of eminence stemming from a major role in a great discovery'. Outstandingly successful as president (1960-65) of the Royal Society, London, he reorganized the institution, greatly expanded its research-professorship programme and secured magnificent new premises at 6 Carlton House Terrace.

As a boy and a young man, Florey had been good at sport and he continued to play tennis with enthusiasm into his fifties. Outside the laboratory, his main enjoyment was travel, and from his earliest days at Oxford he took every opportunity to go abroad, delving into the history, architecture, art and music of the countries he visited; he relished the extensive travel that he undertook as a result of the fame of penicillin and his connexion with the A.N.U. He was an enthusiastic photographer; he relaxed with classical music; and in later life he found pleasure in painting and in cultivating a rose garden at his Marston home in Oxfordshire.

Florey had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941, for work done before the practical use of penicillin had been demonstrated. Subsequently, the contributions of the drug to human health and well-being were so immense and so obvious that honours and awards were showered upon him. He was knighted in 1944, won (with Chain and Fleming) the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine in 1945, was appointed to the French Légion d'honneur in 1946, was awarded the U.S.A.'s Medal of Merit in 1948, and received numerous medals and prizes from societies in England and abroad, as well as honorary degrees from many British, Australian and other universities. In 1965 he was created Baron Florey of Adelaide and Marston. That year he was appointed to the Order of Merit.

Author or co-author of some two hundred scientific papers, Florey edited Lectures on General Pathology (London, 1954), which went through four editions, and co-authored the massive two-volume treatise, Antibiotics: A Survey of Penicillin, Streptomycin, and Other Antimicrobial Substances from Fungi, Actinomycetes, Bacteria and Plants (Oxford, 1949). On 6 June 1967 at the register office, Oxford, he married a divorcee Margaret Augusta Jennings, née Fremantle (d.1994), a long-time colleague in his Oxford laboratories. Survived by her, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died of myocardial infarction on 21 February 1968 at his Queen's College lodgings and was cremated. He had made no fortune, for in the 1940s patenting of penicillin was against ethical medical principles; his estate was sworn for probate in England at £29,786.

A suburb in Canberra is named after Florey and his likeness adorns the Australian $50 note; a research institute in Melbourne, a lecture theatre and professorship in the John Curtin school, and a joint Royal Society-A.N.U. lecture and travelling fellowship bear his name. In England his name is attached to a fellowship at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and to a building belonging to The Queen's College. A memorial tablet was unveiled at St Nicholas's parish church, Marston, in 1980, and a commemorative stone in Westminster Abbey was unveiled in November 1981. There are portraits of Florey by Frederick Deane in the Sir William Dunn school, by Henry Carr in the Royal Society's apartments, by Allan Gwynne-Jones in the University of Adelaide and by (Sir) William Dargie in Florey's old school. A head in bronze by John Dowie has been placed in North Terrace, Adelaide.

Ethel Florey was born on 1 October 1900 at Stanmore, Sydney, fourth child of John Hayter Reed, bank manager, and his wife Joanna Agnes, née Du Vé, both Victorian born. Educated at Tormore House School, Adelaide, and the University of Adelaide (M.B., B.S., 1924; M.D., 1950), she interrupted her medical career to raise her children. She worked with the Oxford Regional Blood Transfusion Service in 1939-41, then took part in clinical trials of penicillin conducted at the Radcliffe Infirmary, at military hospitals and at the Birmingham Accident Hospital. Although dogged by deafness and ill health for most of her life, she was an extremely determined woman and from 1939 led an active professional life. After collaborating with her husband in the book, Antibiotics, she published under her own name a companion work, The Clinical Application of Antibiotics (London), in four volumes: the first (1952) dealt with penicillin, the succeeding three (1957-61) with other antibiotics. Lady Florey died of myocardial infarction on 10 October 1966 at Marston and was buried at St Nicholas Church, Old Marston, Oxford.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1961-70
  • L. Bickel, Rise Up to Life (Syd, 1972)
  • G. Macfarlane, Howard Florey (Oxford, 1979)
  • T. I. Williams, Howard Florey (Oxford, 1984)
  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 17, 1971, p 255 and for list of his publications
  • British Medical Journal, 2, 1966, p 1013
  • Lancet, 2, 22 Oct 1966, p 913
  • Florey archives (Medical Research Council and Royal Society, London, and Australian National University).

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Citation details

Frank Fenner, 'Florey, Howard Walter (1898–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/florey-howard-walter-10206/text18037, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 October 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Howard Walter Florey (1898-1968), by unknown photographer, c1960

Howard Walter Florey (1898-1968), by unknown photographer, c1960

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23609885