OXFORDSHIRE BLUE PLAQUES SCHEME

Norman HEATLEY (1911–2004)

Biochemist, key member of the Oxford penicillin team

12 Oxford Road, Old Marston

Norman George Heatley was born at Woodbridge in Suffolk, the son of a veterinary surgeon. He was educated at Tonbridge School and St John’s College, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences. He went on to take his PhD there and in 1936 arrived in Oxford to work with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology. In 1938 they began to focus on antibacterial substances and took forward the discovery of the curious mould noticed by Alexander Fleming in 1928 and named penicillin by him. Between 1939 and 1943 the Oxford team successfully developed penicillin and gave the world the first antibiotic drug. In recognition of this major achievement a Nobel Prize was awarded to Florey, Chain and Fleming. Only in his later years did Heatley begin to receive wider recognition for the crucial contribution he had made.

He applied his scientific acumen and practical ingenuity to the challenge of growing the mould and extracting and purifying the penicillin to make clinical application a reality. He devised a countercurrent machine and, to meet the shortage of materials in wartime, utilised any vessels and tubes he could find to create the multi-stage automated process necessary for the production of penicillin. In 1941 the first patients were treated with the drug at the Radcliffe Infirmary and Heatley was closely involved with the trials. Penicillin was confirmed as a miracle drug.

The next priority was to achieve mass production and to do so urgently. The best prospect for this was in the USA and Florey and Heatley flew there in 1941 for discussions which proved fruitful. Heatley stayed on for a while as an adviser in the research laboratories there. By 1944 penicillin was being mass produced, to the immediate benefit of wounded soldiers who before the advent of penicillin would have died from septicaemia.

In 1948 Norman Heatley was elected to one of three Nuffield fellowships held at Lincoln College and later became an honorary fellow of both Lincoln College and St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1978 he received an OBE. In 1990 he was awarded the extremely rare distinction of an Honorary Doctorate in Medicine by the University of Oxford. After his death in 2004 a Norman Heatley Postdoctoral Award was established for researchers demonstrating outstanding ingenuity and problem-solving skills.

  • Sources: The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat by Eric Lax (Abacus 2004); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Norman Heatley by Eric Sidebottom (OUP 2004–9)
  • Pictures: Unveiling ceremony and guests
Plaque to Norman Heatley

The plaque was unveiled at 12 Oxford Road, Old Marston, Norman Heatley’s home for nearly 60 years, on 17 July 2010 by his widow Dr Mercy Heatley. A tribute was delivered by Dr Eric Sidebottom of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

NORMAN HEATLEY / dm
1911–2004
Biochemist
key member of the Oxford 
penicillin team 1939–43
lived here / 1946–2004

Oxford Civic Society

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

 

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