These two historic petri dishes are on display at the Powerhouse Museum during Ultimo Science Festival as part of the Science Snaps activity. The sample of green penicillin-producing mould on the left grew for one day and the one on the right for four days. Letters that complement the samples provide glimpses of the 1940s penicillin research project led by Australian-born scientist Howard Florey at Oxford University. They also give us some insight into the hardships faced by families in Britain during and after World War 2.
The samples, given to US medical officer Royal de Rohan Barondes when he visited Florey’s lab in 1944, were purchased by the Museum in 1999. The archive, purchased in 2002, reveals that Barondes and his wife sent food parcels to the Floreys at least until the end of 1950.
Howard’s wife Ethel, who had studied medicine with him at Adelaide University, supervised many of the early clinical trials of penicillin. In a letter dated 13 March 1948, Ethel thanked her American friends for the food parcels and told them she had been allotted the task of writing the clinical section of a major reference work on the antibiotic. She wrote that, although a good deal of interesting material was pouring in for her consideration, ‘nothing could be as exciting as the early experimental days of penicillin, when we could see that a new field of therapeutics was opening up before us’.
On 14 November 1948, in a dry but eloquent response to another food parcel, Howard wrote: ‘It seems a long time ago, in many ways, to the pre-Normandy days, but they were for us times of great interest in spite of all.’
Rationing was imposed during the war in response to German success in restricting Britain’s food imports. It did not finish until 1954, although restrictions were lifted progressively after the war. Ethel referred in one letter to wartime shortages of fuel and fat, both necessary to keep warm. Her children had spent the war years in Canada, where they were safe from bombing and well fed; with them back home and a hungry teenage son to feed, she was very grateful for the food parcels.
Howard wrote again on 13 January 1950, noting ‘I sent you some Scotch woollen things which may keep you warm if that is necessary.’ Perhaps some of those winter woollies did come in handy, because by the end on 1950, when Ethel wrote to thank him for yet another food parcel, Royal Barondes was stationed in Japan and involved in the Korean War.
On display with the samples is a 1943 booklet, signed by Florey and probably given to Barondes in 1944, titled ‘Investigations concerning the use of penicillin in war wounds, compiled under the direction of Professor H.W. Florey F.R.S. and Brigadier Hugh Cairns F.R.C.S., R.A.M.C.’ Cairns, like Florey, had studied medicine at Adelaide University and become a Rhodes Scholar, but it was war that brought these two eminent Australians together, supervising clinical trials in North Africa.
For his penicillin work, Florey was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Knight Bachelor. Rather grandly, he was later named Baron Florey of Adelaide (Australia) and of Marston (UK). In 1945, he shared a Nobel Prize with co-worker Ernst Chain and with Alexander Fleming, who had noticed the antibiotic properties of Penicillium notatum in 1928. Our samples of the mould are descended from the one that Fleming discovered in his lab, famously observing that it was more than a mere contaminant of one of his petri dishes.