Lives of the fellows

Ernst Boris (Sir) Chain

b.19 June 1906 d.12 August 1979
KCB(1969) D Phil Berlin(1930) PhD Cantab(1943) MA Oxon(1945) FRS(1949) PhD Liège(1946) Bordeaux(1947) Turin(1954) Paris(1959) Yeshiva(1961) Chicago(1965) Hon FRCP(1965)

Ernst Chain was born in Berlin to parents of different origins. His father, Dr. Michael Chain, was a chemist and industrialist who originated from Russia, while his mother, Margarete Eisner, had been born in Germany. After studying at the Luisengymnasium, Ernst Chain entered the Friedrich-Wilhelm University, Berlin, in 1924, where he graduated in chemistry and physiology, obtaining his PhD in 1930. He then worked for three years in the department of chemical pathology of the Charité Hospital, Berlin, under Peter Rona.

In the early part of 1933 Ernst Chain came to England, almost immediately after Hitler’s accession to power in Germany. He spent a few months in the department of chemical pathology at University College Hospital Medical School, London, under Charles Harington, but their temperaments were somewhat incompatible and, later that year, Chain joined Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins in Cambridge, where he remained until 1935.

Chain had apparently been introduced to Hopkins by JBS Haldane, who had just come to London to accept a chair at University College. Hopkins had a great influence on Chain, which persisted throughout his life. HW Florey (later Lord Florey) had taken up in 1935 the chair of pathology in Oxford, and was anxious to recruit a biochemist into his research group. Hopkins was approached indirectly with a request to recommend one of his scientists for the Oxford appointment, the post was offered to Chain, and he moved to Oxford, where he remained until 1948.

During this period the important work on penicillin was done which led to the award of the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine to Fleming, Chain and Florey in 1945. Chain and Florey had been frustrated in the beginning of their penicillin work by lack of support from the Medical Research Council, and even after the penicillin work had been completed, Chain was unable to get what he considered adequate support for his further research in Oxford. When in 1948 the headship of a department in the Istituto Superiore di Sanita, Rome, was offered to him, he accepted the post both with alacrity and regret, feeling that this new post gave him greater opportunity to expand his research than had been possible in Oxford.

In 1958 PMS Blackett (later Lord Blackett) discussed on a visit to Rome the possibility of Chain setting up a department of biochemistry at Imperial College, London. This idea was further explored by Sir Patrick Linstead, who was then rector of Imperial College, and as a result of combined efforts by Chain and Linstead, support by the Wolfson Foundation and the Science Research Council was obtained to set up the Wolfson Laboratories under Chain’s direction.

Thus, in 1964 Chain returned to London to take charge of the new facilities which were given to him. Chain retired from his chair in 1973, but he continued to be active in many different directions until his death.

During his Cambridge period Chain worked on the biochemical basis of the action of snake venoms, and made a significant contribution to our understanding of their biological action. When he moved to Oxford he worked on a variety of topics, but of particular importance was his demonstration, together with Duthie, of the ‘spreading factor’, being identical with hyaluronidase, as the enzyme which splits a well-defined linkage in the hyaluronic acid molecule. Chain also showed that lysozyme was an enzyme, and he defined to some extent its mode of action.

However, his most outstanding achievement was his participation in the isolation of penicillin. There has been much argument about the relative contributions of Fleming, Chain and Florey, and the complicated story is told in an objective manner by Gwyn Macfarlane in his biography of Florey, but Chain’s contribution was vital and his enthusiasm and devotion were of decisive importance for the successful solution of an important piece of work. The isolation of penicillin and its introduction into medicine were to prove a milestone of great importance in therapy, and ultimately led to the discovery of many other antibiotics.

Of almost equal importance to the isolation of penicillin was the preparation of new penicillins, which was to a very large extent due to Chain’s imaginative and persistent efforts. In 1954, on the advice of the late Sir Charles Dodds, the chairman of the Beecham Group, Henry Lazell, approached Chain to help Beechams with their plans to enter the field of antibiotics. Chain, who had been interested in the development of plants for fermentation, decided to cooperate with Beechams in a research programme aimed at modifying p-aminobenzyl-penicillin. The discovery was made that under certain conditions a precursor of penicillin, namely 6-aminopenicillanic acid, accumulated in the fermentation fluid, and this was decisive in opening up the possibility of making on an industrial scale new penicillins of a desired structure.

In recent years Chain became increasingly interested in animal and human biochemistry, particularly in the field of carbohydrate metabolism, the action of insulin, cardiovascular disease, and some problems of nutrition. Some of this work was jointly done with his wife, Dr Anne Beloff-Chain, a distinguished biochemist in her own right.

Ernst Chain was an accomplished person with many interests, full of vitality, and possessed of an unbounded energy. He had a passionate belief in the causes he embraced, and was not given to easy compromise. Thus, he believed strongly that the present emphasis on molecular biology was mistaken, and that the future in biology and especially in biochemistry would lie mainly with those who were working on the whole organism or whole cells. He tended to push these views to extremes, and he could be intolerant of those who were prepared to follow a more moderate line.

Chain also felt strongly that the pharmaceutical industry was serving the community extremely well, that attacks on it were unfounded, and that academic scientists should collaborate closely with industry. Chain himself cultivated such contacts throughout his life. He was particularly critical of what he considered was the narrow-minded attitude of the academic establishment on these matters, and again he occupied a somewhat extreme position.

Chain had many interests outside science. He was an expert pianist, and he performed together with his elder son in public. Music was one of his major concerns, and indeed he had considered at one time entering on a musical career. He was closely involved with the Weizmann Institute in Israel, as well as with many other scholarly institutions in that country. Chain had great loyalty towards friends, and was unusually generous to those who were in need or in personal difficulties.

He married Anne Beloff, sister of Max (later Lord) Beloff, in 1948, and they had two sons and a daughter. He was extremely happy in his married life, and greatly enjoyed the success of his children.

A Neuberger

[Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1983, 29, 43-91;, 1979, 2, 505; Lancet, 1979, 2, 427; Times, 16 Nov 1979; Daily Telegraph, 14 Aug 1979; Guardian, 15 & 27 Aug 1979]

(Volume VII, page 94)

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