Chain, Sir Ernst Boris (1906-1979) German/English Biochemist (Scientist)

Sir Ernst Chain followed up on alexander fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin by isolating its antibacterial agent, thus proving its effectiveness as one of the first antibiotics. For this work, Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with his colleague Sir howard walter florey, as well as with Fleming. Chain spent the rest of his career promoting the development of penicillin as a kind of wonder drug—for example, he elucidated the chemical structure of crystalline penicillin, identifying four distinct types, and he later discovered penicillinase, an enzyme that destroys penicillin. The discovery of penicillin had a profound effect on medicine in the 20th century, enabling doctors to combat bacterial infections simply and effectively.

Ernst Boris Chain was born on June 19, 1906, in Berlin, Germany. His mother was Margarete Eisner, a Berliner, and his father, Dr. Michael Chain, was a Russian immigrant and chemical engineer who established a prosperous chemical manufacturing plant. Visits to the laboratory at his father’s factory inspired Chain’s early interest in chemistry, but when Chain was 14, in 1919, he lost his father. He attended secondary school at Berlin’s Luisengymnasium. Despite the fact that his family lost its fortune in the postwar inflation, forcing his mother to transform their home into a guest house, they still afforded to send him to Friedrich-Wilhelm University, where he earned degrees in chemistry and physiology in 1930.


For the next three years, Chain held concurrent positions conducting enzyme research at Berlin’s Charite Hospital and at the Kaiser Wil-helm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry. In January 1933, Adolf Hitler ascended to chancellor of Germany, prompting Chain, a Jew, to emigrate (his mother and sister chose not to and later died in concentration camps). He landed in England in April 1933 and worked briefly at University College Hospital Medical School before securing a position at Cambridge University’s School of Biochemistry investigating phospholipids under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins.


In 1935, when Howard Florey, newly appointed head of Oxford University’s Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, sought nominations for an accomplished biochemist to join his laboratory, Hopkins recommended Chain. Chain became a demonstrator and lecturer in chemical pathology there the next year. While investigating the protein lysozyme, his literature search yielded Alexander Fleming’s overlooked paper on the penicillin mold, a study that interested Chain and, in turn, Florey.

Funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Chain and Florey (joined by Norman Heatley) set out to identify and isolate the active ingredient in Penicillium notatum, which Fleming had failed to do. Whereas Fleming cooked up a broth from the penicillin mold, Chain and his colleagues took the further step of freeze-drying this broth to obtain a powder, which they administered to laboratory mice. Successful trials prompted the team to experiment on humans, which required them to prepare huge amounts of penicillin broth (125 gallons of broth yielded one tablet’s worth of powdered extract). In 1941, they injected eight bacterial infection patients with penicillin; two died of unrelated complications, while the other six recovered.

Inspired by their discovery of penicillin’s antibacterial agent, Chain and his colleagues devised ways to maximize production of this wonder drug for use in treating the wounded in World War II, which they commenced in 1943. After the war, Chain advocated the unrestricted use of penicillin, even behind the Iron Curtain in the Communist bloc.

In 1945, Chain shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Florey and Fleming for their roles in the discovery of the antibacterial action of penicillin. In 1948, he married fellow biochemist Dr. Anne Beloff, and together the couple eventually had three children: two sons, Benjamin and Daniel, and one daughter, Judith.

By that year, he grew discouraged with Oxford’s lack of support for advancing penicillin research, so when the Istituto Superiore di San-ita in Rome offered him the position of scientific director of its newly established International Research Center for Chemical Microbiology, Chain jumped at the opportunity. Over the next dozen years, Chain distinguished the institute as a premiere international research facility. In 1958, he and his colleagues isolated the basic penicillin molecule, leading to the production of hundreds of new strains of penicillin.

In 1961, Chain returned to England as a biochemistry professor at Imperial College in London. During this decade, he discovered penicillinase, an enzyme that destroys penicillin. He retired to emeritus status in 1973, though he continued to conduct research at the Wolfson Laboratories as a senior research fellow until 1976.

Besides the Nobel Prize, Chain also received the 1946 Berzelius Medal and the 1954 Paul Ehrlich Centenary Prize. In 1947, the French government appointed him as a commander in the Legion d’Honneur, and in 1969, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him. He died of heart failure in Ireland on August 14, 1979.

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