Ernst Chain
(June 19, 1906 - August 12, 1979)
Born in Germany
Year of Discovery: 1940

ChainErnst Boris ChainThe Chemist for the Team That Discovered the Drug - Penicillin

Some are scientific geniuses and others are musical prodigies – Ernst Chain was both. From an early age it was apparent Chain possessed great skills in both science and music. These divergent talents conflicted Chain and, through his twenties, he often considered abandoning science for the life of a concert pianist.  But in 1933, the Jewish native of Berlin saw the handwriting on the wall when the Nazis came to power. He immigrated to England in 1933 - his sister and mother who stayed behind in Germany died in concentration camps during World War II. In England, he teamed with Howard Florey, an Australian pharmacologist, to study the natural antibacterial agents produced by microorganisms. They were especially interested in penicillin, which had been described by Alexander Fleming nine years earlier in 1928. Chain was a brilliant chemist and provided key insights into isolating, purifying, and concentrating penicillin. This allowed the team to extract the first form of penicillin suitable for testing, first in animals and then in humans. 

A young girl develops strep throat - a boy skins his knee. Today, these commonplace occurrences are of minor concern and easily treated. But, prior to the discovery of penicillin, these simple conditions were often death sentences. As Florey and his team, including Chain, raced to complete their work on penicillin, thousands of soldiers were dying on the battlefields of World War II - from infections that could be cured with penicillin. Penicillin, the "wonder drug," was the first antibiotic discovered. Antibiotics gave mankind the ability to fight bacterial infections and ushered in a new era in modern medicine. Though Fleming discovered the antibacterial properties of the mold penicillin, it was Florey and his team who completed the complex steps of isolating and purifying it into a drug - then determined how to mass produce it. The task was painstakingly slow and the team faced challenges at each crucial stage. The lengthy fermentation time inhibited their progress, until they found brewer's yeast cut the time in half. They discovered adding ether helped isolate the penicillin, but then had to figure out how to extract the isolated penicillin from the ether once the process was complete. They developed a method of "freeze drying" the liquid solution of mold broth, evaporating it in successive steps. Beginning with several gallons of initial mixture, they were able to produce just enough penicillin to cover a fingernail. Florey would eventually fly to the United States to collaborate with scientists to mass produce penicillin. By D-Day, in June of 1944, there was enough penicillin available to treat all 40,000 soldiers injured in the Normandy invasion.

Chain was an invaluable addition to Florey's team. His near photographic recall of the scientific papers he had studied, including Fleming's earlier work, helped keep the research moving in the right direction. It was Chain who developed the process to isolate penicillin by adding ether. Chain was also the driving force behind the process of purifying and concentrating penicillin, developing the unique "freeze drying" method to reduce the gallons of mold broth to a potent drug. It was this concentrated form of penicillin that was used, in 1940, in the initial tests with laboratory mice. That early success spurred the team on through successful human trials and to the mass production of the world's first antibiotic.

Written by science writer, Tim Anderson

Lives Saved:  Over 203,000,000

Chain was born in Germany and received his undergraduate degree in Chemistry there. After the Nazis came to power, being Jewish, Chain realized he had no future there, and moved to England in 1933 with 10 pounds in his pocket. It was there he earned his PhD at Cambridge University.

Towards the end of WWII he learned the Nazis killed his mother and sister.

Penicillin Cured 12 Diseases!  Creating Modern Medicine!
Syphilis..........Gonorrhea..........Childbed fever..........Septicemia..........Meningitis..........Scarlet fever
Gas gangrene..........Anthrax..........Tetanus..........Rheumatic fever..........Diphtheria..........Lobar pneumonia

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Key Contributors
Howard Florey
Ernst Chain
Norman Heatley
Alexander Fleming

Books About the Scientist
The Life of Ernst Chain: Penicillin and Beyond. By Ronald Clark. Palgrave Macmillan, 1986. By Ronald Clark.

Links to More About the Scientist & the Science
Ernst Chain's Nobel Prize Biography
Ernst Chain's Wikipedia Page