Lives of the fellows

Howard Walter, Baron Florey of Adelaide and Marston Florey

b.27 September 1898 d.21 February 1968
OM(1965) Kt(1944) MB BS Adelaide(1921) PhD Cantab(1927) MA Oxon(1935) FRS(1941) MD(1944) FRCP(1951) PRS(1960-65) Nobel Prize(1945)

With the sudden death of Lord Florey at the age of 69 Lincoln College, Oxford lost one of the most distinguished members it ever had. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1941, was knighted in 1944, was a Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine in 1945, and was President of the Royal Society for five years from 1960. In 1965 he was created a Life Peer and appointed a member of the Order of Merit. He was a Professorial Fellow of Lincoln for twenty-seven years and had been an Honorary Fellow since 1962.

Howard Walter Florey was an Australian who came to Magdalen as a Rhodes Scholar in 1922, after qualifying in medicine at the University of Adelaide. He was placed in the First Class in the Honour School of Physiology in 1923 and was subsequently awarded a BSc for work carried out under the supervision of Sir Charles Sherrington. In 1924 he was a John Lucas Walter Student at Cambridge, and in 1925 a Rockefeller Foundation Travelling Fellow in the USA. He then returned to Cambridge as a Fellow of Gonville and Caius and obtained a PhD.

At the age of 33 he became Professor of Pathology at Sheffield and four years later succeeded Georges Dreyer as the second Professor of Pathology in Oxford. Apart from extensive visits abroad he remained in Oxford during the rest of his life. For more than 25 years he was head of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, where his most important scientific work was done. In 1962 he resigned from the Chair of Pathology to become Provost of Queen’s. He was elected to an Honorary Fellowship at Magdalen and at Gonville and Caius.

Florey was essentially a physiologist and he advised a number of young graduates who came from other Universities to read physiology at Oxford before beginning research in his department. His first appointment to a Chair of Pathology, at Sheffield, was not viewed with any great warmth by many traditional pathologists. But his subsequent election at Oxford appears to have been widely welcomed and it fulfilled a hope which had been expressed by his predecessor. By using an experimental instead of a purely descriptive approach he changed a wide area of pathology and the way in which it was taught. If the belief that he would break new ground was an overriding consideration in the minds of the electors at Oxford, this was to be amply confirmed.

Florey’s eminence and his influence in later life stemmed partly from the fact that he played a central role in the discovery of the chemotherapeutic properties of penicillin. No one could have been associated with a discovery of this magnitude and of this kind without realizing that he owed much to fortune. It is very necessary, he wrote later, not to be hypnotized by the results, which are in truth so gratifying as to be at times almost unbelievable. But it was his cast of mind, his vision, and his drive which provided the setting in which this discovery came to be made.

The experiments by which Florey set great store were those whose results were simple and clear-cut and whose significance could not be rapidly eroded by later work. He showed no great interest in the construction of theories when the facts were inadequate, or unable to speak for themselves. It was perhaps for this reason that he was attracted to the study of naturally occurring substances with well-defined antibacterial properties. He brought chemists and biochemists into his department, the first being E. B. Chain (q.v.) with whom he planned in 1938 a systematic investigation of antibiotics. Penicillin, a chemically defined material which had remained little more than a curiosity since its discovery as an active principle by Alexander Fleming in 1929, was fortunately one of the first substances chosen for study. Its lability, which had defeated an earlier attempt at its purification, presented a challenge to new investigators. A group of people was eventually formed to work on its chemical and biological properties.

This work was begun as a project of biological interest and with no great expectation that its results would have immediate medical importance. But, when some purification of penicillin had been achieved the outlook was entirely changed by a few crucial experiments. Florey’s experiments with mice in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology and his subsequent direction of the treatment of a small group of patients in the Radcliffe Infirmary established in the clearest possible manner, by 1941, that penicillin was a substance of unprecedented chemotherapeutic value.

The introduction of penicillin into medicine was followed by extensive and systematic screening programmes, designed to discover other antibiotics of value, and led to the founding of a large industry. The aggregate profits of the antibiotics industry have now amounted to many hundreds of millions of pounds. It is of interest to reflect that a small fraction of this sum would have been sufficient to overcome some of the grave financial difficulties with which the University is constantly faced. Florey was well aware, at the time, of the commercial implications of the Oxford work. But he was officially advised that there was nothing he should do in this area. Indeed, no channels existed through which anything could easily be done and the view was then prevalent that matters of principle and medical ethics were involved.

After the mid 1950s, Florey ceased to be personally involved in research on antibiotics. He turned to studies of degenerative changes in blood vessels which were much more closely related to the work with which his career as an experimenter had begun. In these he made extensive and elegant use of the electron microscope to obtain information in the direct manner which he had always found most satisfying. In later years he renewed an active interest in world problems, which had been evident in the 1930s when he provided space at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology for a small group of biologists studying methods of contraception.

As a young man Florey had done tutorial teaching at Cambridge. In middle life he not infrequently gave the impression that lecturing to medical students was a duty with which he would gladly have dispensed. Yet he gave excellent lectures, constructed with great care, and he arranged a course in Pathology which illustrated his own experimental approach to the subject.

In the University he had little interest in administration as an occupation, and he had a strong sense of personal priorities in which research undoubtedly came first during much of his working life. Although he held well-defined views on changes which would be desirable in the University, he appeared to have concluded at an early stage that life would be too frustrating if he became a man with a mission to change Oxford in a hurry. Nevertheless, he believed in the college system and used his influence with great success to initiate within it measures which would facilitate research and add to the welfare of graduate students. In 1947 Lord Nuffield gave £50,000 to endow three Research Fellowships at Lincoln in subjects related to medicine, and in 1952 money was provided by British Pharmaceutical Companies for a similar Fellowship at Lady Margaret Hall. A donation from Mary Lasker contributed to the setting up at Lincoln of the first Middle Common Room in Oxford. While Florey was Provost of Queen’s, the College carried out an extensive modernization of its main buildings, embarked, with the help of a substantial gift from the Ford Foundation, on new buildings for undergraduates and graduates, and instituted European studentships intended to be similar to the Rhodes Scholarships.

In the 1950s Florey played a major part in the foundation of the Australian National University and at one time he was very near indeed to leaving Oxford to become director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at Canberra. In the event, he remained in this country to become an outstanding and urbane President of the Royal Society, who did much to ensure that the Society would maintain and extend its function at a critical period in its history. His manner, integrity, and the respect in which he was held gave him the co-operation of many colleagues and contributed in no small measure to the breadth of his achievements.

In 1924 Florey went to Spitzbergen as Medical Officer to an expedition of the University Exploration Club. He travelled widely throughout the rest of his life and became an enthusiastic sightseer who recorded his journeys on film. His pictures were mainly of places, but some of his colleagues will remember glimpses of the personal, such as those in 1943 of Sir Reader Bullard descending the steps of the Embassy at Teheran in full ceremonial dress, and of a former Nuffield Professor of Surgery running naked into the Mediterranean from the North African shore.

Florey was a man of strong character who had great vigour and ambition in early and middle life and a temperament which was far from placid. In a rather flat voice he could make remarks which were devastating, although they were also often funny - at least in retrospect. He reacted strongly when obstructed. But he mellowed very much indeed in later years and asked once at dinner ‘why should I get ulcers trying to get them to do what I want?’ Few men in his position can have shown more concern for the welfare of their junior colleagues, or been less pretentious themselves. He was sensitive when confronted with some forms of compliment, such as that of the rose garden provided by Magdalen and financed by Mrs. Lasker to commemorate the Oxford work on penicillin. When needled by the very eminent head of another science department he retorted ‘You do something useful, and perhaps you will have a rose garden named after you’.

Florey was shy of personal relationships, and avoided most kinds of familiarity. When the use of Christian names had become almost universal in Lincoln he, like Sidgwick, used only surnames and was addressed by surname in return. But he was easy to talk with, never dull, and obviously enjoyed and approved of the social amenities that the colleges can still provide. One of the first questions he asked about Lincoln, before becoming a Fellow, was ‘Is it a place where one can get a decent meal?’ The answer to this question which he obtained from experience was apparently satisfactory and he always regarded the chef as one of the important members of the College. He lived in College for a time, when plans for new University building forced him to leave his house in South Parks Road, and over many years he made frequent and welcome appearances in Common Room.

In 1926 he married Mary Ethel Reed who had been a fellow medical student at Adelaide, who helped him with early experiments at Cambridge, and who later took part in some of the clinical work with penicillin. She died in 1966, after an illness which had restricted her movements for some time, leaving a son and daughter. In 1967 he married the Hon. Dr. Margaret Jennings, Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, with whom he had worked in the School of Pathology for many years.

EP Abrahams

[, 1968, 1, 529, 582, 649; Lancet, 1968, 1, 480; Times, 23 Feb 1968; Lincoln College Record, 1967-1968; Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1971, 17, 255-302; DNB]

(Volume VI, page 178)

<< Back to List