A Humanitarian Economy

Howard Florey was born in Australia. His father owned a series of shoe repair shops. Howard was very bright and began pursuing a medical degree when he was 18. He was also a gifted athlete. When his father died when he was two years into college, the family found out that the shoe repair business was bankrupt. Howard finished college on scholarships.

A Rhodes scholarship took him to England where he expanded his interests in a variety of medical fields. When he was 37, he became the Chair of Pathology at Oxford. This was when he began his collaboration with Ernst Chain, a refugee from Nazi Germany. They began a research project on Lysozyme, a substance Alexander Fleming found to be a killer of bacteria.

What Chain found was a paper from Alexander Fleming that identified a fungus called penicillium was the bacteria killing substance. Fleming had tried to produce the fungus on a larger scale but failed. Florey began working on the production of the fungus, now called penicillin. The project on Lysozyme was discontinued when initial production methods proved promising.

Initial tests of penicillin proved successful with mice studies. Florey was unable to convince British companies to produce enough penicillin for human tests. Florey used his own lab to produce enough penicillin for human trials. The trials were very successful. Again, there was no interest by British companies to produce penicillin. Florey found interest in America.

Penicillin was immediately used to save tens of thousands of lives of soldiers in World War II. Penicillin was truly a miracle drug. Florey would not patent penicillin or its production process because it was unethical.

Florey, Fleming and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Fleming’s employer publicized his Nobel Prize widely. Florey refused to talk to press because there was not enough penicillin to meet the demand should it be over publicized. Also, he thought that other members of the penicillin project team should be recognized as well.

Behind most innovations there are generally two major contributors who are both essential. The originator of the concept leading to the innovation tends to get the credit. But just as important is the person who makes the idea happen. Florey took Fleming’s discovery and made it into the miracle drug it is today. Without his determination, penicillin may not have come about for years and there would have been an incredible loss of lives in World War II and later.

Just imagine the subsequent impact on human suffering should Florey not have been a humanitarian in opening up access to penicillin to all? True heroes are those who shun credit for their work and are rewarded instead that they made lives better. Just imagine how we might rethink the global intellectual property policies for life saving discoveries? Just imagine how free market economies can be more encouraging to humanitarianism.

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“Perhaps the most useful lesson which has come out of the work on penicillin has been the demonstration that success in the field depends on the development and coordinated use of technical methods.” – Howard Florey

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