three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
By: 
Eric Lax
user_rating: 
0

The Story of the Penicillin Miracle

A-MoldFloreyAlexander Fleming discovered Penicillium notatum in 1928. Yet, by 1935 the Scotsman had been unable to extract a usable sample of the miracle mold and shifted his research to other subjects. It wasn’t until 1941 that a small team of Oxford scientists led by Howard Florey performed the first clinical tests with penicillin. Set amidst the intrigues of World War II, this book recounts the astonishing success of these unsung heroes’ trials. The story continues in Peoria, Illinois, where the work of chemist Norman Heatley paved the way for commercial production of the antibiotic and the onset of modern medicine.
Henry Holt. 352 pages. $25.
ISBN: 0805067906

International Herald Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"… Lax has written a compelling and definitive account of one of medicine’s greatest achievements and all of the driven, brilliant and very human scientists who accomplished it." Howard Markel

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lax’s] account is also the first to contain more than 60-year-old diary entries, as well as modern musings by Heatley. … Beautifully researched and written, alive with scientific and human insight, Lax’s fine book likely will become the classic account of penicillin’s true medical beginnings." Claire Panosian Dunavan

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… admirable, superbly researched. …[W]hat Mr. Lax has done at long last is to hand out the properly deserved degrees of merit to all who were involved in the making of this extraordinary and fugitive piece of magical chemistry." Simon Winchester

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"And what a rich historical story it is: full of the challenges of working in wartime Britain (including an incident that inspired the book’s title), technological and business obstacles, personality clashes, and romantic disappointments and intrigue. … Though the book will never erase 60 years of myth-making, Lax’s fascinating account gives Florey, Chain, Heatley and others at Oxford the recognition they deserve." Fred Bortz

Houston Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The author does not get into the nitty-gritty of the real science behind penicillin’s discovery, which is both the book’s strength in readability and its weakness in content. … For the science buff, the focus on personalities and infighting becomes a tad too relentless and the coverage of the science is too lightweight." Alcestis

Observer (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"Eric Lax goes into enormous detail about [penicillin’s] discovery and the subsequent squabbles over who really made the breakthrough. It is not a light read and some chapters become bogged down in the personal histories of the character, but the twists and turns of the research are fascinating." Jo Revill

Critical Summary

Eric Lax, biographer of Woody Allen and Paul Newman, tells a riveting tale of the uncelebrated in The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat. Critics generally praise his focus on the personalities behind the science, especially his treatment of Heatley, a heretofore-anonymous chemist who was passed over for the 1945 Nobel Prize won by Fleming, Florey, and Ernst Chain. Reviewers disagree about Lax’s balance between hard scientific information and personal history; a few critics wished for more science at the expense of a human-interest (and highly readable) story. Overall, Lax overwhelmingly succeeds in evoking the monumental importance of the Oxford scientists’ work.