Nobel Prize winner medal at Bonhams

A Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine medal awarded to Sir Ernst Chain for his life-saving work with penicillin and antibiotics will be offered by Bonhams with an estimate of £300,000-£500,000 this month.

While Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 was a revolutionary step in the treatment of bacterial infection, its widespread practical application was not, however, immediately realisable. It took the work of Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in the late 1930s and early 1940s to isolate and concentrate the element in penicillin that kills the bacteria; and make it into an effective and manufacturable drug.

Nobel Prize winner Sir Ernst Chain in his laboratory

All three men were awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Sir Ernst Chain’s medal is to be sold at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in London.

Ernst Chain (1906-1979) was born in Berlin into a prominent Jewish family. He graduated in chemistry from Friedrich Wilhelm University in 1930 but left Germany for the UK three years later following the Nazi government’s rise to power. In 1935 he was appointed lecturer in pathology at Oxford University and it was there that he joined a team led by the Australian pharmacologist and pathologist Howard Florey investigating natural antibacterial agents produced by microorganisms.

Taking Fleming’s pioneering discovery as a starting point, the two men devised techniques for growing penicillin, determining how it worked, testing it and carrying out clinical trials. In 1941, they used penicillin to treat an Oxford policeman. At first, the patient responded well but he later died because supplies of the drug ran out and the laboratory could not produce more in time. Nevertheless, the experience proved that – fundamentally – the drug could work.

Sir Ernst Chain's Nobel Prize winner's medal

In his acceptance speech in Stockholm Chain said, “I am profoundly grateful to Providence that it has fallen to me, together with my friend Sir Howard Florey, to originate this work on penicillin”, adding, “…we are now, after a long and sinister interval, able again to take part in these magnificent and unforgettable commemoration day celebrations.” The ‘long and sinister interval’ had a particular and tragic poignancy for Chain who lost his mother and sister in the Holocaust.

The medal is accompanied by:

  • Sir Ernst Chain’s Nobel Prize diploma consisting of two vellum leaves with calligraphic inscriptions in Swedish in blue and red, including Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Boris Chain, and Sir Howard Walter Florey’s names on second leaf, issued jointly ‘for the discovery of Penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases’, citation dated 25th October 1945, second leaf extensively signed by 28 members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science
  • A printed copy of Ernst Chain’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Matthew Haley, Bonhams Head of Fine Books & Manuscripts, said, “All Nobel prizes are, of course, special but the one awarded to Ernst Chain is perhaps particularly so because of the incalculable benefits it represents. His work – and those of his fellow recipients – led to the availability of affordable readily available antibiotics which have saved hundreds of millions of lives and increased life expectancies across the globe. Sir Ernst – he was knighted in 1969 – was a truly remarkable man and it is a great honour to be offering his Nobel Prize medal.”