Dunn School's Chris Tang tells Penicillin story in Radio Four interview

Dunn School's Chris Tang tells Penicillin story in Radio Four interview

Professor Chris Tang from the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology discussed the significance of the Dunn School in the development of penicillin – the ‘wonder drug’ against infectious disease - during a panel interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’ on 9 June. 

Professor Tang joined Laura Piddock from the University of Birmingham and Steve Jones from University College, London to discuss the history of the development of the antibacterial drug with broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

The drug has led to combatting infectious disease worldwide and resulted in a Nobel Prize in 1945 for Fleming, Florey and Chain, the scientists involved in its discovery and development.

Although Alexander Fleming from St Mary’s hospital, London, first discovered penicillin in 1928 he failed to recognise its significance as a treatment for systemic infection and believed its instability and the challenges around purification made it unsuitable for development.   

Driven by the need to address infection related deaths in World War II it was the Dunn School’s Florey and Chain that did recognise it’s full potential, after reading Florey’s paper ten years later, and set about developing penicillin into a viable medicine. 

Chris and colleagues trace the history of the development of the wonder drug from a cottage industry at the Dunn School to big pharma industrial production in the US.

The story involves other key players including scientist and ‘master craftsman’ Norman Heatley, who in the face of World War II shortages fashioned a purification system out of a bookcase, and the structural biologist Dorothy Hodgkin who solved the molecular structure of penicillin giving the opportunity for further modification of the drug.

The programme ends by considering the spectre of penicillin resistance and a call from Professor Tang for the pharmaceutical industry to reverse dwindling investment in antibacterial development.


Laura Piddock at the University of Birmingham

Christoph Tang at the University of Oxford

Steve Jones at University College London

Alexander Fleming – Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Alexander Fleming – ODNB podcast

Penicillin – Wikipedia

‘What if Fleming had not discovered penicillin?’ - Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences

Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin - Advances in Applied Microbiology

‘Origins and Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance’ – Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews

‘Antibiotic Resistance within Staphylococcus Aureus’ - MicrobeWiki

‘Antibiotic Resistance Threats Report and Foodborne Germs’ – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

‘New Report Tracks Rise of Antibiotic Resistance in Humans and Livestock’ – Modern Farmer


Kevin Brown, Penicillin Man: Alexander Fleming and the Antibiotic Revolution (The History Press, 2005)

Sally Davies, Jonathan Grant and Mike Catchpole, The Drugs Don't Work: A Global Threat (Penguin, 2013)

Giulia Enders, Gut: The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Under-rated Organ (Scribe Publications, 2015)

Eric Lax, The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat: The Remarkable True Story of the Penicillin Miracle (Abacus, 2005)

Gwyn Macfarlane, Howard Florey: The Making of a Great Scientist (Oxford University Press, 1979)

Gwyn Macfarlane, Alexander Fleming: The Man and the Myth (Harvard University Press, 1984)

Emily Mayhew, Wounded: The Long Journey Home From the Great War (Vintage, 2014)


Thursday, June 9, 2016 - 12