Sunday 10 January 2016


Fran├žois Jacob and Jacques Monod are grandes fromages in the world of molecular genetics because they characterised the first operon - a group of bacterial genes that are switched on together and serve a co-ordinated function - in Escherichia coli. For every hundred people who can open an eppendorf and have heard of the lac operon, not more than five will know or care about bricolage.  This is a concept delivered into the Anglophone world of science by Jacob in an essay and later as a book. The bricoleur of every French village and neighbourhood is the fix-it bloke - the fellow who can give your ancient TV a new lease of life; brace the broken handle of your wheelbarrow with a broom-handle and some duct-tape; re-purpose a coffee-tin as a really loud bell for your kid's bicycle.

Contrary to what is implied, the concept, the vocation, is not limited to France but is also found in England, where such chaps (usually chaps??) are called bodgers. Norman Heatley, whose birthday (10th Jan 1911) falls today, was a bodger with a PhD from Cambridge. He gave shape and made functional the arm-waving cerebral ideas of the academics around him. That his great triumph happened during the desperate privations and short-supply of WWII Britain, made it easier for him to shine because he could turn make-do into can-do like nobody else. His own assessment was "Because it was wartime there were very great scarcities of everything. I am not a very good scientist, but I am very good at improvising". His task was to scale up the production of penicillin, a delicate, hard-to-purify, chemical produced by some strains of the fungus Penicillium.

Ah yes, we know the Ladybird Book story about penicillin: it was discovered in a happy accident by Alexander Fleming. He left some bacterial cultures out too long and a spore from a blue-green mould landed on the Petri dish and killed all the bacteria within reach. That was in 1928, but after some desultory tricking about with the strange fungus which came to nothing, Fleming moved on to other projects.  He never really twigged how the bacteria killing property might be useful. Fast forward 10 years to Oxford, when the newly appointed Professor of Pathology Howard Florey started to assemble a team to discover novel  bacteriocidal products. One of the first hires was a chap from Germany via Cambridge called Ernst Chain who read the literature and thought that Fleming's mould had promise. The Prof agreed and set Chain and Heatley to purify enough of the active principle to carry out a controlled experiment on its efficacy. They started the work in Oxford but their methods were hopelessly inefficient if weirdly exotic.  The mould they had grew best on Petri dishes but they could not piffle about with those small quantities. Casting about in the hospital broom-closets, Heatley found a stack of unused bed-pans and mobilised those, along with biscuit-tin lids, to grow stacks of Penicillium cultures.

Eventually they had enough powder, which was only 1% pure, to administer to 4 mice which had been infected with Streptococcus. Four mice similarly infected were left untreated and died overnight but the penicillin-treated mice all survived. Huzzah! With that fillip it was game on, but they couldn't get sufficient support in England - there was a war on! Accordingly they flew out to Peoria Illinois to develop a protocol that could produce larger quantities of the miracle cure (which didn't save either of the first two people who were treated). Bed-pans and biscuit-tins were all very well in England but Peoria was properly funded and they could call in any equipment they needed. Despite the best work of Ernst Chain, the team chemist, they couldn't discover an efficient way to produce penicillin artificially. They fell back rather on screening hundreds of Penicillium strains isolated from all over the world.  Eventually they found a particularly fizzy mould on a canteloupe in a nearby market, which not only produced larger quantities of penicillin, but was also happy growing in a huge vat. Rosin Cerate has more details.  Every time I browse which is less than once a month, I discover a stonking good essay Chris Drudge: previously on The Blob about medieval medicine.

We had about 30 years of ad lib penicillin which made a number of killer bacterial diseases trivial infections. We squandered the treasure using it as a growth promoter in chickens, so all the bacteria that used to yield to penicillin are now resistant.

Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945 and were showered with medals, awards and honorary degrees especially Fleming who seems objectively to have done least in the process.  Heatley clocked an OBE in 1978, and lived long enough to be recognised by receiving the first honorary Medical Degree by Oxford University in 1990. Florey's successor as Prof of Path Sir Henry Harris summed up the relationships: "Without Fleming, no Chain; without Chain, no Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin.".

As a bodger myself who once made an exceedingly uncomfortable arm-chair out of a tea-chest, I take my hat [I once made a hat out of the bottom of a trouser leg] off to Norman Heatley whose Heath Robinson bodging saved millions of lives and made a helluva lot of fat chickens.

No comments:

Post a Comment