A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Ernst Chain
1906 - 1979

Ernst Chain's father came from Russia to Germany to study chemistry. He stayed there, marrying a Berliner and starting a successful chemical manufacturing company. When he died in 1920, his son Ernst was 14 years old. Ernst inherited the family fortune, but Germany's rampant inflation of 1923 and 1924 nearly wiped it out. The family still had enough to send young Chain to Friedrich Wilhelm University, however. At school, Chain seriously considered a career as a concert pianist and he often gave public performances, but science got the better of him and he obtained his PhD in 1930.

Chain had studied enzyme biochemistry, and he continued research in the field until Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Though born in Berlin and a naturalized citizen, Chain realized that as a part-Russian Jew with leftward political leanings, he may have better opportunities elsewhere. He left for Great Britain almost as soon as Hitler took power. Unfortunately, in the years that followed he could not get his mother or sister out of the country; his mother died in a concentration camp, and his sister disappeared.

It was Chain who uncovered Alexander Fleming's paper on penicillin as part of his larger research into antibiotics and enzymes, together with Howard Florey. They found that penicillin in fact was not an enzyme, and Chain hypothesized its structure -- later proven through x-ray crystallography by Dorothy Hodgkin.

Ernst Chain was said to have a volatile and sometimes combative personality, and he was unhappy with postwar developments in his field in England. With his wife, biochemist Anne Beloff, and their children, he moved to Italy to head the International Research Center for Chemical Microbiology, the first such center for antibiotic studies. He finally returned to England in 1961 to the post of professor of biochemistry at Imperial College, London.

Related Features

Home | People and Discoveries Menu | Help

WGBH | PBS Online | Search | Feedback | Shop
© 1998 WGBH