World premiere for musical tribute to 'unsung hero' of penicillin

Michael Leighton Jones, Director of Music at Trinity College, Melbourne, will be present in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, UK, on Thursday 24 February to hear that College’s Choir give the first performance of his new choral composition, Anthem for the Feast of Any Healer.

With words by Trinity (Melbourne) tutor Katherine Firth, the work was commissioned by Dr John Best, AO, (TC 1958) and Ms Janine Sargeant to mark the centenary of the birth of Norman George Heatley, OBE, DM, (1911–2004), the unsung hero of the development and production of penicillin.

Although Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident in 1928, it was Howard Florey’s team of Oxford scientists who, in 1940, realised its potential for controlling bacterial infections. But before they could conduct clinical trials on it, they first had to produce the penicillin in sufficient quantities. This was where the ingenuity of the junior member of the team, biochemist Norman Heatley, came to the fore. It was he who devised a method of purification and, subsequently, of manufacture, that enabled them to demonstrate its effectiveness, first in mice and then in humans.

This success created a demand for the production of even greater amounts so, in 1941, Heatley and Florey undertook a dangerous flight to the USA with the penicillin mould concealed in the lining of their coats. There they sought the help of a laboratory in Illinois to develop larger scale manufacturing. Heatley remained in America for a year, working with government scientists there to further the production and efficacy of penicillin.

While Fleming, Florey and his colleague Chain received the 1944 Nobel Prize for their work on penicillin, Heatley went unrecognised until 1990 when he was awarded the first Honorary Doctorate in Medicine bestowed by Oxford University in its 800-year history.

As Sir Henry Harris, Florey's successor as Professor of Pathology at Oxford, said during the 1998 Florey centenary celebrations: “Without Fleming, no Chain or Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin.”

Commenting on the anthem, Leighton Jones explains: “Overall, the music seeks to convey the mysterious nature of scientific discovery; it also includes echoes of Oxford chimes and even the contribution of the mice!” A Latin pun on the name of Florey – Floreat Heatley – begins the work, leading into a section which extols the ‘modern miracles’ of medical discovery.”

There are two versions of the piece, one of which contains spoken word (including a brief extract from Heatley’s journals) as well as the musical score. The shorter, music only version will be performed in Cambridge.

The Australian premiere of the full version will be given by the Choir of Trinity College, the University of Melbourne, directed by Michael Leighton Jones, during Evensong Service in the Trinity College Chapel, Royal Parade, Parkville, on Sunday 6 March 2011, commencing at 6pm. It is hoped that both performances will be recorded. 

21 Feb 2011
Category: About