Ernst Boris Chain, about whom it is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most important scientists in world history, is nonetheless a name that you may not recognize. Here is his incredible story.
The discovery of penicillin is attributed to Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), who sought to find a chemical substance that would destroy infectious bacteria without harming tissues or weakening the body’s defenses. An accidental observation in 1928, which was a direct result of his disorderly habit of not discarding culture plates promptly, led to the discovery that if penicillium notatum were grown in the appropriate substrate, it would discharge a substance with antibiotic properties, which he dubbed “penicillin.”
This serendipitous observation began the modern era of antibiotics, when the active ingredient in that mold later turned out to be a potent infection-fighting agent and the world’s most effective life-saving drug.
Exhibited here is a November 9, 1951 correspondence from Fleming to photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt after a several-hour sitting that resulted in Eisenstaedt’s production of the scientist’s defining portrait. Fleming complains, in jest:
I have suffered but now the ordeal is over. I can only hope that the results justify the time and trouble spent. It seems to me that bacteriology is easier than photography.
The “ordeal” of which Fleming writes was no doubt his 1951 photography session with Eisenstaedt, who captured him in the lab, depicting him as carefully studying an upheld petri dish. Eisenstaedt (1898 – 1995) was a Jew who, after escaping Germany at the onset of the Holocaust, went on to become universally recognized as the defining photojournalist of the twentieth century.
Though Fleming was the first to explore the special properties of the distinctive penicillin mold, he saw no way to extract it and, convinced its anti-bacterial qualities were unsuited to action in the human body, concluded that its production was unworkable. He therefore ceased all research into the substance.
The truly great scientific advance began when German-Jewish biochemist Ernst Chain (1906-1979), today recognized as a major founder of the field of antibiotics, perhaps the single most important revolution in medicine, came upon Fleming’s original paper on penicillin in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology and solved the mystery of penicillin’s chemical nature.
It was Chain who recognized the potential of Fleming’s nearly forgotten discovery, and it was he who isolated and purified the active antibacterial substance and worked out its molecular structure. Using samples that Chain produced, he and Howard Florey, also a Jewish refugee from Hitler, demonstrated penicillin’s stability, nontoxicity, and effectiveness against infections in laboratory animals and humans.
Moreover, it was Chain and Florey who figured out how to mass-produce it in drug form, thereby saving countless millions of lives. Many know that Fleming received the 1945 Nobel Prize for his work with penicillin, but few remember that he shared the award with co-recipients Chain and Florey. (The focus of this article, however, will be on Chain’s life and contributions.)
Chain was born in Berlin, where he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and physiology (1930) and spent three years working on enzyme research. One of the fortunate few who recognized what the rise of National Socialism meant for the Jews, he left Germany soon after Hitler came to power and emigrated to England, where he worked as a professor and research scientist at Cambridge and then Oxford University. His mother and sister, however, remained in Germany and were subsequently murdered during the Holocaust.
Chain was a proud Jew. As he explained in a lecture at the University of London in 1970, “As far as my own actions are concerned, I am trying to be guided by the laws, ethics, and traditions of Judaism as formulated in the Old Testament.” He married within the faith (to chemist Anne Beloff) and was an outspoken anti-assimilationist. He was also a dedicated Zionist and a powerful advocate for providing a Jewish education to young Jews; in fact, his own children, after spending time on various Israeli kibbutzim, received a religious education in Israel. In words that could well summarize the role of a yeshiva day school education today, Chain explained:
We must have appropriately trained teachers who can transmit to the young that the traditions of Judaism are not archaic and dusty, but have great relevance to the problems facing us in the modern world.
Toward that end, he chose Rabbi Baruch Horowitz, head of the Jerusalem Academy of Jewish Studies, about whom he wrote:
I am quite certain of one fact. If we get too far from the basic ethical laws of Judaism, Israel as a country and the Jews living in the diaspora are doomed, and sooner or later they will disappear. Rabbi Horowitz is one of the rare people who can get the values of Judaism across to young people, and he can get them to accept that they are as valid today as they were when they were formulated 3,000 years ago.
In “Why I Am a Jew,” a speech he delivered at the World Jewish Conference of Intellectuals in 1965, Chain said:
While we have witnessed astonishing technological progress over the last 4,000 years, human relations have remained essentially unchanged since the time the Torah was written, and have to be regulated by very much the same laws.For this reason, the fundamental teaching of Judaism, as expressed in the Old Testament, and developed by the great sages of the Middle Ages, one unitarian Almighty, benevolent, all-pervading, eternal Divine force, of which the spirit of man was created an image, is for me still the most rational way of accepting man’s position and fate in this world and the Universe.
And in a speech accepting a Doctorate of Philosophy Honoris Causa from Bar-Ilan University, he stated:
In the search for an ethical code of behavior we have to look for more lasting values than scientific discoveries or theories. We, the Jewish people, have had the extraordinary privilege to have been given a lasting code of ethical values in the divinely inspired laws and traditions of Judaism which have become the basic pillars of the Western world.
Shortly after World War II, Chain was invited to make aliyah and to set up his own biochemical department at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth. He was promised that a new building devoted to biochemistry and biology would be built to his specifications and that he could name his own salary. He accepted an invitation to visit Eretz Yisrael in April 1946, where he lectured to the Convention of Palestinian Chemists on “The Chemical Constitution of the Penicillins” and later spoke on the same subject at Hebrew University. In a dramatic personal appeal, Chaim Weizmann wrote to him:
I do not know how much weight my words may have with you when you will be considering your further connections with the new center at Rehovoth, but I must tell you that it would be a great benefit to Palestine as a whole and for science in our country in particular, if you could make your residence here…. with the help of your authority we might be able to build up in Palestine a local tradition of science of which there is to date only a modest beginning…. your great discovery has made you a man chosen to do a great service to Palestine. So much depends on your presence here; in fact, everything…