FLOREY, Howard Walter (1898-1968), was an outstandingly-effective medical researcher who pioneered the development and use of antibiotics. Although popular mythology credits Alexander Fleming, it was Florey and his team that gave the world the miracle drug, penicillin.
Born and educated in Adelaide, Florey decided early on a career in scientific research. Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, he left Australia to study at the University of Oxford in 1921, expecting never to return – the opportunities for research in Australia were just too limited. In 1935, Florey was appointed to the chair of pathology at Oxford, where he energetically set about the development of an interdisciplinary team to tackle fundamental questions related to disease. Within a few years, his team had begun to investigate the anti-microbial properties of penicillin. By 1941, Florey and his wife Ethel were undertaking clinical trials, demonstrating the astonishing curative powers of the drug. Florey’s achievement earned him a share of the 1945 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Florey’s attachment to Australian remained strong, and in 1944 he was asked to advise on the establishment of a medical research institute in Canberra. His guidance was crucial as the proposal developed into the Australian National University. Florey did not finally accept the directorship of what became the John Curtin School of Medical Research, however, he served as chancellor from 1965.
Florey was knighted in 1944, and created Baron Florey of Adelaide and Marston in 1965. The story of Florey’s life is enthrallingly told by Lennard Bickel in Rise Up to Life (1972), with more detailed biographies by Gwyn Macfarlane (1979) and Trevor Williams (1984).
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