June 19, 1906 is the birthdate of Ernst Boris Chain, the biochemist who won the 1945 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his research on penicillin. Chain shared the prize with his research partner, Howard Florey, and Alexander Fleming, who in 1928 first identified penicillin and recognized its bacteria-killing quality. Chain and Florey isolated the active ingredient in Penicillium notatum mold and were instrumental in determining how to mass-produce it in drug form.
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Ernst Boris Chain was born in Berlin, to chemist and industrialist Michael Chain and the former Margarete Eisner, both of them Jews. Michael had immigrated from Russia, and Margarete was German-born. Michael died when Ernst was 13, and subsequently the family’s fortune, from Michael's manufacturing plant, was eroded by the country’s super-inflation.
Still, Ernst attended university and attained a degree in chemistry in 1930. Three years later, recognizing that the newly elected Nazi government bode ill for Jews, he emigrated to England, arriving in April 1933. Chain’s mother and sister stayed behind, and both of them died in concentration camps.
After working initially on phospholipids at Cambridge University, Chain took a position in pathology in 1935 at Oxford, where he worked on a number of different topics. During his research he came across Fleming’s original paper on penicillin. Fleming, who worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, had stopped studying penicillin in 1931 after becoming convinced that its anti-bacterial qualities were not suited to action in the human body and because its production was so impractical.
Florey and Chain’s success in determining Penicillium’s active ingredient (it was a colleague at Oxford, Dorothy Hodgkin, who mapped its precise chemical structure) made it possible to figure out how to maximize its effectiveness and from there to move on to producing it in medicinal form.
They did their first clinical trials with laboratory rats in 1940, and their success led to a rush to come up with a method to produce the antibiotic in mass quantities, an effort in which the American scientific community was enlisted. The latter was of critical importance in the early 1940s, as World War II was raging (although the United States was still a non-combatant), and infection was no less lethal a cause of battlefield death than gunfire.
At a ceremony last year at the Imperial College of London, where a biochemical research building was named for Chain and a bust of his likeness unveiled publicly, the college’s president read from the diary of Oscar Nemon, the bust’s sculptor. In the early 1940s, Nemon’s wife had become mortally ill with pneumonia, and he was told she could not be saved.
At the same time, a friend of a friend mentioned knowing Ernst Chain, who already was recognized, Nemon noted in his journal, for his role in identifying penicillin, “the wonder of the century.” Nonetheless, he went on, “I thought, what could be done? The wonder drug had been discovered but was as yet unusable.”
Almost in a frenzy, Nemon took a taxi to Chain’s house, and apologizing for the intrusion, told him of his desperate need to find a cure for his wife.
Nemon described Chain’s response: “He said: ‘Penicillin’s my child, and I’m not allowed to see it or touch it. But what I’ll do is this – I’ll steal it!’
“He brought the penicillin in its test tube straight from the laboratory. It had never been used on a patient before. My wife was the first case. The treatment was carried out in the greatest secrecy, and it saved her life."
The commercially produced penicillin proved its effectiveness in an improvised trial with survivors of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, in November 1942. Four hundred and ninety-two people died in that disaster, but penicillin helped many more survive by preventing infection in their skin grafts. Following this success, the U.S. government became involved in the mass-production of the drug, so that it was soon available for use at the front.
Toward the end of World War II, Chain learned that his mother and sister had both been killed by the Nazis. In 1945, just months after the end of the war, he, Florey and Fleming received the Nobel Prize.
A short time later, unhappy with the support he received at Oxford in furthering penicillin research, Chain accepted an offer to lead a new laboratory of microbiological research at the Istituto Superiore di Sanita in Rome. There, in 1958, he and his colleagues isolated the penicillin molecule, which then made it possible to synthesize many new strains of the antibiotic agent. In 1961, he returned to London, now to the Imperial College, where he directed the new biochemistry department.
Chain’s late career was dedicated to identifying the defensive mechanisms that cause the body to produce mutated microbes that counteract the positive effects of penicillin. His strong sense of Jewish identity, and growing religious faith, led him to develop a skeptical view of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which seemed to deny the role of what is today called “intelligent design.” As writer Frank Heynick wrote in his book “Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga,” there was some irony in this, considering that in the lab, Chain was focused on such Darwinian processes as mutations that could create drug-resistant microbial strains.
In any event, Chain married within the faith, to chemist Anne Beloff, and the couple had three children, whom they were intent on giving a Jewish education. Assimilation, Heynick quotes Chain as commenting, “is a loss of orderliness, and therefore a step toward an increase in entropy, i.e., chaos. It is most important to realize this and to understand that we benefit most the community among which we are living by preserving our identity, and not by losing it through an assimilation process.”
Ernst Boris Chain remained active in Jewish organizations and in Israeli institutions of higher education until the end of his life. He died on August 12, 1979, at the age of 73.