The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science

By Peter Medawar | Go to book overview

14
Florey story

Howard Walter Florey was a great man and no mistake. He devoted the more important part of his professional life to a single wholly admirable purpose which he pursued until he achieved it, showing, in spite of many setbacks and rebuffs, the magnanimity that is the minimal entry qualification for being considered 'great'. In a memorial address, Patrick Blackett likened Florey's achievement to that of Jenner, Pasteur, and Lister: but the public were so little aware of him that when Macfarlane first approached publishers with the notion of a biography, 1 they wondered if he would not do better to write on Alexander Fleming instead. This, Macfarlane surmises, was because the public had already cast Fleming as the hero of the great penicillin story: he was a closer approximation than Howard Florey to the public's stereotype of a great scientist, for, although a great scientist, Florey was the kind of man who would have been a success at anything he had chosen to turn his hand to. Macfarlane thinks the comparison of Florey with Jenner, Pasteur, and Lister is specially apt because 'the work of these three men forms a logical sequence with his own that spans, in the course of about 150 years, the gulf between almost total therapeutic helplessness and the virtual defeat of most of the important bacterial diseases.' Whatever the general public may have thought about him, Florey stood unsurpassably high in the estimation of his colleagues -- that which means most to a scientist-and in due course they elected him head of their profession in England as President of the Royal Society.

It is fortunate for mankind that no Geneva convention prohibits the prosecution of germ warfare by germs themselves, among

-162-

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