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Sweden, and memories of Hugo Theorell


Purifying penicillin
Christian de Duve Scientist
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I had written my dissertation and... and defended it in '45, and I actually finished my chemistry... I got my... my MSc in Chemistry in '46. But, of course, by the time... by the time the war finished, I had only one idea... after being cooped up under German occupation for four years in Belgium, I had only one idea: move out and see the world. Well, there's still one episode that maybe I should mention here. To... in order to... to get my chemistry degree I had to do a small thesis on a subject... a small research thesis, and biochemistry was not recognised by the Science Faculty of the university. They only knew organic, mineral, physical chemistry. Three branches. And so I was... I didn't know exactly what to do; I couldn't work on insulin or glucose – that would not have been accepted. And so by chance one day, walking in Louvain, I met a young man whom I knew slightly. He was Flemish – a young doctor who worked in the laboratory of microbiology... bacteriology – and he had been approached by a group of business people and the professors at Louvain who, under the impulse of a man who had a rather big paper factory, wanted to create a new... a new pharmaceutical industry. They wanted to create an industry that would... that would do its own research. Not just packing of... of chemicals, but actually do research, and they had put up the money, or some money, for this, and they had decided that the first... the first thing they would do would be to make penicillin. They had heard, of course, of penicillin because – and some of the early works on penicillin were, of course, available – Fleming made his discovery in something like 1932, if I remember rightly. And so they wanted to make penicillin. And this young man was in fact culturing penicillin notatum, which is the mould that makes penicillin, from which penicillin is extracted. He knew how to assay the bacteriostatic effect of insulin on bacterial cultures, but he wasn't a chemist; he didn't know how to purify it. And so he said, 'Well, I want somebody to purify the penicillin.' I said, 'That's fine, I'm going to do that', and so my thesis for my chemical degree was to purify penicillin. Well, it turned out that that little work that we did together... the man was called Piet De Somer... that we did together, led to the creation of a new company that was called R.I.T., and R.I.T. grew because of my friend. He really developed this company: they made vaccines – polio vaccines; they made a lot of antibiotics; they made a number of very important developments. So the company grew; eventually the company was bought by the American company, SmithKline & French. SmithKline & French was eventually bought by Glaxo, and Glaxo was... was eventually called by... bought by Beecham, or maybe it's the other way round; I forget. Anyway, this little company blossomed into finally becoming a part of one of the biggest pharmaceutical industries in the world – Glaxo... GBK or BGK, Beecham, Glaxo, Kline [sic]... anyway, something like that. They have a big... in fact, in Belgium they have very big research labs and... and manufacturing facilities rightly. So I was... I was actually involved in the... this little adventure, but when the war finished, I decided, no, I don't want to go into industry; I want to go back to insulin and I want to become a pure... a scientist... to do so called pure science.

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: 1945, 1946, 1932, R.I.T., SmithKline & French, GlaxoSmithKline, Recherche et Industrie Thérapeutiques, Pieter De Somer

Duration: 5 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008