Dr. Norman Heatley, 92, Dies; Pioneer in Penicillin Supply
January 17, 2004
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR
Dr. Norman G. Heatley, an Oxford University biochemist who
helped revolutionize medicine by isolating early samples of
penicillin and helping to convert it into a powerful drug
that gave Allied troops an advantage in World War II, died
Jan. 5 at his home in Oxford, England, according to the
university. He was 92.
Penicillin was first identified by Dr. Alexander Fleming in
1928, but his efforts to extract the active substance from
its mold were unsuccessful. He published a paper on his
discovery and moved on to other projects.
Then in 1938, Dr. Howard W. Florey stumbled upon Fleming's
largely forgotten paper at Oxford and set out to obtain
enough penicillin to run clinical trials.
By early 1940, Dr. Heatley, a member of Dr. Florey's
scientific team, had developed a crude technique for
isolating minuscule amounts of penicillin. In a simple
overnight experiment, the team demonstrated that the drug
could protect mice that had been injected with deadly
bacteria. But carrying out trials with humans required a
device that could produce penicillin on a much larger
With the bombing of Britain during the war, supplies and
financing were scarce, so Dr. Heatley was forced to
assemble his updated apparatus from bottles, containers and
"He used every conceivable container available to him,"
said Sir Henry Harris, who succeeded Dr. Florey as a
professor of pathology at Oxford. "You have to remember,
this was wartime, so no one had anything. He was an
extremely gifted improviser."
Despite enormous odds, Dr. Heatley's machine worked. It
separated enough penicillin to test on a human, but the
limited supply ran out before the patient could fully
British companies expressed interest in mass-producing the
penicillin, but wartime demand for standard drugs was too
great, and Dr. Heatley and Dr. Florey had to look overseas
In June 1941, the two set out on a perilous trip to the
United States with samples of their penicillin mold. They
ended up at a Department of Agriculture research laboratory
in Peoria, Ill., where, working with some of the top
biologists in the United States, Dr. Heatley and Dr. Florey
set in motion the research that led to large-scale
production of penicillin.
Almost immediately, the drug's impact was striking.
1944, when Allied forces charged the beaches of Normandy,
enough penicillin was available to treat wounded British
and American troops. In the United States, as penicillin
and other antibiotics became widely used, the number of
deaths from major infections began to plummet while overall
life expectancy climbed.
"Not only did Heatley make a crucial contribution, but
without him the enterprise may not have succeeded at all,"
said Sir James Gowans, a former professor of pathology at
Oxford. "He was the one that came up with the key step in
the isolation of penicillin."
In the early 40's, after working on industrial development
of the drug in the United States, Dr. Heatley returned to
Oxford to help with the British effort.
In 1990, roughly 50 years after he extricated the first
bits of antibiotic from a fungus, Dr. Heatley was
celebrated with a rare honor. Oxford awarded him the first
honorary doctorate of medicine in its 800-year history.
Dr. Heatley, however, was not included in the Nobel Prize
in Medicine or Physiology, awarded in 1945, for the
development of penicillin. That went to Dr. Fleming, Dr.
Florey and Dr. Ernst Chain, the member of the Oxford team
who discovered the chemical action of penicillin.
Norman George Heatley was born in Suffolk, England, and
earned his bachelor's degree and doctorate from Cambridge.
He joined the faculty at Oxford shortly afterward,
remaining there until his retirement in 1976.
Throughout his career, he was the author or co-author of
more than 60 scientific papers. A scholarship at Oxford, as
well as the laboratory where he first purified penicillin,
are now named after him.
He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Mercy; two sons,
Jonathan and Chris; two daughters, Rose and Tamsin; and six