Our History

Over our 100 years of history, our research has saved millions, if not billions, of lives.

The development of the first antibiotic, penicillin, ranks among the top medical discoveries of all time, and was the subject of a Nobel Prize in 1945, but we have never rested on those laurels. Other milestone discoveries in our almost 100 years include the cellular basis of the immune system, development of the world’s most prescribed antibiotic class (the cephalosporins), the development of recombinant Factor IX as a treatment for certain types of haemophilia, new types of influenza vaccine (given to millions of people worldwide), and immune treatments to support transplantation and against multiple sclerosis. And despite these achievements, we believe our best research is still to come.


Opening of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.

Head of Department Georges Dreyer.

The building was erected following a bequest of £100,000 in 1922 from the Trustees set up in the will of Sir William Dunn who had died in 1912.


Howard Florey becomes Head of Department.

Florey was originally from Australia, and initially came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Later he moved from the University of Sheffield to take over as Head of the Dunn School.


First systemic administration of penicillin in man.

The team at the Dunn School were the first to purify penicillin and to demonstrate its anti-bacterial effect in vivo. PC Albert Alexander was the first patient to receive the drug. Although he initially improved, supplies of penicillin ran out and he succumbed to his infection.

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Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine awarded to Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at the Dunn School (jointly with Alexander Fleming)

The dedicated work of the team of Florey, Chain and Heatley ushered in the age of modern medicine, and paved the way for drug discovery. It has been estimated that over 500 million lives have now been saved by penicillin.

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Demonstration of lymphocyte recirculation by James Gowans.

The demonstration that lymphocytes, a key component of the immune system, recirculate from blood to lymph led to intense research to define the underlying mechanisms and the relevance of this phenomenon to immunisation and immunity against infectious agents.


Discovery of cephalosporin by Edward Abraham and Guy Newton.

Cephalosporins are the most prescribed antibiotics world-wide. The compound was purified at the Dunn School from a fungus originally isolated by Giuseppe Brotzu in Sardinia.


Henry Harris becomes Head of Department.

Harris did his PhD with Florey, but subsequently worked on distinct topics including RNA metabolism and the pathogenesis of cancer. He returned to the Dunn School from the Department of Cell Biology at the John Innes Centre.

1965, 1969

Cell fusion and tumour suppression by Henry Harris.


Expression of recombinant Factor IX by George Brownlee.

Recombinant factor IX is used for the treatment of certain forms of haemophilia (Haemophilia B), an inherited condition that that leads to excessive bleeding. Affected individuals are now treated with the purified factor instead of blood products which might contain dangerous infectious agents.


Alan Williams was appointed Professor-elect of Pathology and Head of Department, having directed the MRC Cellular Immunology Unit in the Dunn School since 1977. Leading his team in biochemical studies of leukocytes, he pioneered ways of classifying their many different surface molecules. He researched their functions, thus illuminating how immune cells converse with their neighbours. He purified and sequenced Thy-1 antigen (CD90) and discovered its glycolipid tail. He was the first to find and use monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) to artificially influence such molecular conversations. The worldwide present-day value of mAbs in clinical diagnosis and therapy is partly built on his foundational, rock-solid research. Sadly he died of cancer in 1992.

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Herman Waldmann becomes Head of Department.

Waldmann defined the mechanisms of immunological tolerance, which is critical for successful transplantation. He identified antibodies that can be used to manipulate the immune system.


Establishment of reverse genetics for Influenza virus by George Brownlee.

The establishment of a genetic system for influenza provided a breakthrough for rapidly generating vaccine strains that are needed to make the flu vaccine. The vaccine has to be made every year, based on up-to-date knowledge of circulating strains, so speed is of the essence.


Opening of the EPA Building.

The EPA building was opened by Sir Tim Hunt and is named in honour of Edward Abraham, who led the team that purified cephalosporin. The building contains the library, the EP Abraham Seminar Room, and cafeteria as well as laboratories and offices.


Opening of the OMPI Building.

This building offers state-of-the-art facilities for around 200 scientists over four floors.


Matthew Freeman becomes Head of Department.

Matthew Freeman works on the mechanisms by which cells signal to each other, and how this fundamental process influences development and immunity.


FDA approval of Alemtuzumab developed by Herman Waldmann for use in multiple sclerosis.

This antibody targets a molecule of lymphocytes which are an important component of the immune system. Alemtuzumab is now used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, certain forms of leukaemia, and during transplantation.

Find out more

The Bodleian Libraries and the History of Science Museum both hold many artefacts and documents relating to the history of the Dunn School, and which are available for members of the public to consult. We also hold a small number of items in the Dunn School.

If you would like any help finding information about the history of the Dunn School, or indeed would like to donate any items of historical relevance to the department, please do get in touch.