The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat The Story of the Penicillin Miracle

Eric Lax

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat is "a compelling and definitive account of one of medicine's greatest achievements and all the driven, brilliant, and very human scientists who accomplished it" (The New York Times).

Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in his London laboratory in 1928 and its eventual development as the first antibiotic by a team at Oxford University headed by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in 1942 led to the introduction of the most important family of drugs of the twentieth century. Yet credit for penicillin is largely misplaced. Neither Fleming nor Florey and his associates ever made real money from their achievements; instead it was the American labs that won patents on penicillin's manufacture and drew royalties from its sale. Why this happened, why it took fourteen years to develop penicillin, and how it was finally done is, in Lax's capable hands, a fascinating story of quirky individuals, missed opportunities, medical prejudice, brilliant science, shoestring research, wartime pressures, misplaced modesty, conflicts between mentors and their protégés, and the passage of medicine from one era to the next.


Praise for The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat

"Admirable, superbly researched . . . Perhaps the most exciting tale of science since the apple dropped on Newton's head . . . By reminding us of the stellar contributions to [penicillin's discovery] that were made by the Oxford University team of Howard Florey, Ernest Chain, and a hitherto utterly anonymous chemist named Norman Heatley, Mr. Lax has performed a service to science of which he should be proud and all must be grateful . . . [A] valuable and eminently readable book."—Simon Winchester, The New York Times

"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 . . . The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat combines Lax's biographer's skill with an intelligent sympathy for medicine, science, and the polar personalities that sometimes produce brilliant collaborations."—Los Angeles Times

"The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat is the engrossing story of the true Mother of All Antibiotics. This is a wonderful book, not merely about science, but the remarkably human process of discovery."—Scott Turow

"This is a fascinating history of penicillin that puts the work of Alexander Fleming into perspective and gives proper credit to Howard Florey and his colleagues at Oxford who actually developed the antibiotic and made it the most important medical discovery of the twentieth century. But Eric Lax, a great biographer, has done more than that. He has written a compelling narrative, filled with colorful personalities, that reveals how science really works. He shows the collaboration and the competitiveness, the selfless efforts and financial incentives, the brilliance, rivalries, ambitions, jealousies and, yes, the dedicated heroism that all combine in a quest for glory and the Nobel Prize 0as well as for saving lives."—Walter Isaacson, author of Ben Franklin

"Lax makes the characters come alive in all their humanity, and vividly conveys the excitement of research set in the middle of global war and the threat of invasion. This is a thrilling tale and one of much-delayed justice."—New Scientist

"Lax captures the adventure well, closely chronicling the tugs and pulls of the scientific egos as they journeyed through perilous times and exciting science."—Houston Chronicle

"Veteran journalist and author Lax takes a revealing look back at the time when world-altering science was done on a shoestring, bringing to brilliant life the story of the first great antibiotic. Informative and thoroughly enjoyable science history."—Kirkus Reviews

"Lax has written a commendable account of this historical oversight, conveying the thrill of discovery during the upheaval of WWII and skillfully translating the abstruse technicalities of lab work and medical jargon into enjoyable prose."—Publishers Weekly

"Lax [here] turns his attention to the fascinating story surrounding the development of penicillin during World War II . . . Relying heavily on interviews and personal papers, Lax consistently illustrates the major impact of the war on their research—the antibiotic was desperately needed, yet they were stymied by a constant lack of funding and the threat of enemy soldiers destroying their work. Unlike previous Florey biographies or historical accounts of penicillin, Lax focuses on the early stages of research as seen through the eyes of the Oxford scientists. This fast-paced book is recommended for all public libraries and history of medicine collections."—Tina Neville, University of South Florida at St. Petersburg Library, Library Journal

"In this fluent, entertaining report on the history of the arguably most significant medical discovery of the twentieth century, Lax delves into the lives of the colorful scientists who played significant roles in developing the antibiotic. To create a thorough portrait, Lax exerts almost fanatical attention to detail (there are copious endnotes as well as attributions within the text) and makes recourse not only to the scientists' research notes and other public records but also, frequently, to their private correspondence and to interviews with their friends and families. This is a dramatic story of the men and women who collaborated, sometimes happily but at other times grudgingly, to develop something that proved revolutionary to modern medicine and to the pharmaceutical industry."—Donna Chavez, Booklist (starred review)

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Eric Lax is the author of Woody Allen, A Biography and Life and Death on 10 West, both New York Times Notable Books. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Life, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire, as well as in many other magazines and newspapers. He lives with his wife and two sons in Los Angeles.
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  • Eric Lax

  • Eric Lax is the author of Woody Allen: A Biography and Life and Death on 10 West, both New York Times Notable Books. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Life, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire, as well as in many other magazines and newspapers. Lax lives with his wife and two sons in Los Angeles.