Norman Heatley

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Norman Heatley
Born 10 January 1911
Woodbridge, Suffolk
Died 5 January 2004
Oxford, England
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields Biologist, Biochemist
Known for Penicillin

Norman George Heatley (10 January 1911 – 5 January 2004) was a member of the team of Oxford University scientists who developed penicillin. Norman Heatley developed the back extraction technique for efficiently purifying penicillin in bulk.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and as a boy was an enthusiastic sailor of a small boat on the River Deben; an experience which gave him a lifelong love of sailing. He attended school in Folkestone and Tonbridge, then went on to St John's College, Cambridge, where he studied Natural Sciences, graduating in 1933. His doctoral research in Cambridge led to a PhD in 1936, and he then moved to Oxford where he became a fellow of Lincoln College and joined a team working under Howard Florey, which also included Ernst Chain.

Production problem[edit]

Alexander Fleming had first discovered penicillin by accident in 1928, but at that time believed it had little application. When Florey and his team recognised the potential of the discovery for combating bacterial infection, they faced the problem of how to manufacture penicillin in sufficient quantities to be of use. Heatley, although the junior member of the team, possessed a natural gift for ingenuity and invention. It was he who suggested transferring the active ingredient of penicillin back into water by changing its acidity, this would purify the penicillin.

Heatley recorded these trials, carried out on eight mice in May 1940, in his diary:

"After supper with some friends, I returned to the lab and met the professor to give a final dose of penicillin to two of the mice. The 'controls' were looking very sick, but the two treated mice seemed very well. I stayed at the lab until 3.45 a.m., by which time all four control animals were dead."

On returning home, he realised that in haste and darkness, he had put his underpants on back to front, and noted this in his diary too, adding "It really looks as if penicillin may be of practical importance."[1]

In order to conduct tests on human patients, even more of the drug had to be produced, and again it was Heatley who realised that the most effective vessel for this purpose was something like the porcelain bedpans in use at the Radcliffe Infirmary. These were in short supply because of wartime, so Heatley designed a modified version which was manufactured in the Potteries. With the help of these, the Oxford laboratory became the first penicillin factory, and subsequent tests on human beings proved the efficacy of the new treatment. Even so, it was very difficult to produce enough for sustained treatment.

Trials on humans[edit]

Penicillin was tried on a local policeman, who had had a sore on his mouth about a month previously; the infection had spread to his scalp. An abscess there had spread to both his eyes, one of which had had to be removed. He had open abscesses on his arm, as well as abscesses on his lung; he was on his way towards death from the terrible infection. Heatley, Florey, Chain and the rest of the Oxford team tried it on the dying policeman. This was one of the first tests of penicillin; each day the penicillin was extracted from the policeman's urine and used on him again. It had taken four days for him to improve, but on the fifth day there was not enough penicillin to be extracted.

Illinois and New Jersey[edit]

Eventually Heatley and Florey travelled to the United States in 1941 because they wanted to produce about one kilogram of pure penicillin, and persuaded a laboratory in Peoria, Illinois, to develop larger scale manufacturing. In Peoria, Heatley was assigned to work with Dr. A. J. Moyer. Moyer suggested adding corn-steep liquor, a by-product of starch extraction, to the growth medium. With this and other subtle changes, such as using lactose in place of glucose, they were able to push up yields of penicillin to 20 units per ml. But their cooperation had become one-sided. Heatley noted: "Moyer had begun not telling me what he was doing."

Florey returned to Oxford that September, but Heatley stayed on in Peoria until December; then for the next six months he worked at Merck & Co. in Rahway, New Jersey. In July 1942 he returned to Oxford, and was soon to learn why Moyer had become so secretive. When he published their research results, he omitted Heatley's name from the paper, despite an original contract which stipulated that any publications should be jointly authored. Fifty years on, Heatley confessed that he was amused, rather than upset, by Moyer's duplicity. Later he was to learn that financial greed had led Moyer to claim all the credit for himself. To have acknowledged Heatley's part of the work would have made it difficult to apply for patents with himself as sole inventor, which is what he did.


Sir Henry Harris put it succinctly in 1998:

Without Fleming, no Chain or Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin.

Yet while Fleming, Florey and Chain all received the Nobel prize for their work, Heatley's contribution was not fully recognised for another 50 years.

It was only in 1990 that he was awarded the unusual distinction of an honorary Doctorate of Medicine from Oxford University, the first given to a non-medic in Oxford's 800-year history.[2]

Final years[edit]

Heatley died on 5 January 2004 at his home, 12 Oxford Road, Marston, Oxfordshire, which now bears a commemorative plaque in his honour.[3] He was buried in a biodegradable coffin after a funeral service at St Nicholas's Church, Marston, on 15 January. Heatley, who was a passionate bird watcher throughout his life, was survived by his wife, Mercy, and four children, Rose, Tamsin, Jonathan and Chris.



  1. ^ Evans, Ruth (8 January 2004). "Obituary: Norman Heatley". Guardian Unlimited (Guardian Newspapers Limited). Retrieved 2006-08-04. 
  2. ^ Sidebottom, Eric (Trinity Term 2004). "Without Heatley, no penicillin". Oxford Today: The University Magazine 16 (3). Retrieved 2006-08-04. "(1990 Oxford: an Honorary Doctorate in Medicine, the first given to a non-medic in Oxford's 800-year history and, in Heatley's view, 'an enormous privilege, since I am not medically qualified')" 
  3. ^ Blue Plaque for Norman Heatley on his Marston home