Imperial celebrates the founder of the Department of Biochemistry as it names the Sir Ernst Chain Building Wolfson Laboratories.
Friends, family and colleagues of the German-born British biochemist Sir Ernst Boris Chain (1906 -1979) gathered last week to celebrate the naming of the Department of Life Sciences’ Sir Ernst Chain Building – Wolfson Laboratories. The ceremony was in recognition of Chain’s contribution to the College, where he founded the Department of Biochemistry in 1964 and held the Chair in Biochemistry until his retirement in 1976.
The naming event took place in the Common Room on level 7 of the building – a fitting venue that had originally been the dining room of the flat that Chain lived in with his family during his time at Imperial.
Sir Ernst’s son Dr Daniel Chain, Chairman & CEO of Intellect Neurosciences, flew in from New York to be at the ceremony, where he reminisced about how his father had inspired him, and shared anecdotes of being brought up at Imperial in the days before weekend security on campus: "We didn’t really have any neighbours to speak of, so I relied on the good company of my brother and sister. A lot of the mischief we got up to, we got up to together; the network of tunnels and shafts beneath College was our frequent playground.
"At weekends we were free to roam the building, and we used to take full advantage of offices left unlocked. In one of these rooms, I remember discovering an exciting-looking machine, which turned out to be a paper shredder. I fear I got rather carried away, and would like to extend my apologies to the scientist who would have come back in the following week to find rather fewer grant applications on his desk."
Chain arrived at Imperial having already been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1945 while at Oxford. The Prize was “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases”, and he shared it equally with Sir Alexander Fleming and Sir Howard Florey. It was Chain who devised methods for isolating, purifying and concentrating penicillin from gallons of mould broth so that it became usable as a drug, and he went on to work at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome on semi-synthetic penicillins and fermentation technology.
At Imperial, Chain is remembered for his foresight about the importance of biochemistry - a vision that helped the College to evolve its originally modest plans for the subject into the founding of a new Department and construction of the seven-story biochemistry building. Under Chain's direction, the Department became a leading international centre for physiological biochemistry with a focus on fermentation technologies that were essentially industrial biotechnology years ahead of its time. A special feature was the fermentation pilot plant of semi-industrial dimensions that Chain had built at the back of the building, funded by the Wolfson Foundation – a long-term strategic partner of the College.
Chain was also known for his musical accomplishments, and had considered a career as a professional musician at one point. He kept no less than two grand pianos in his flat, where he hosted frequent musical soirées that earned him the nick-name of ‘fiddler on the roof’.
The naming ceremony was led by Imperial’s President & Rector Sir Keith O’Nions, who welcomed the attending members of the Chain family back to their former home. He thanked the family and the Wolfson Foundation for lending their names to the building. He also acknowledged the generosity of alumni Mr David (Physics 1971) and Dr Judy (PhD Botany and Plant Technology 1972) Dangoor for supporting both the event and the display case to show Chain memorabilia from the College archives.
The President & Rector went on to unveil a bust of Sir Ernst by the Croatian-born sculptor Oscar Nemon, whose family has donated the sculpture for display in the stairwell between the second and third floors of the building, along with a bronze medallion of Chain for the display case. Head of the Department of Life Sciences Professor Murray Selkirk read an extract from the sculptor’s diary about how Chain had used a somewhat unorthodox route to save the life of the sculptor’s wife in the early 1940’s:
"Suddenly my wife went down with pneumonia and pleurisy, and lay critically ill in the Acland nursing home [in Oxford]. I was with her one evening when the doctor took me aside and told me that she had no chance of recovery.
"I left the nursing home in a daze – stunned by the thought that my wife was dying and that I would be left in a strange country with two small children. I crossed over to the bus stop in the early July evening in a state of utter despair… and went straight back to the friends with whom I was staying on Boar’s Hill."
Here, through a hurried conversation of coincidences and connections, Nemon discovers that a distant musical acquaintance of his in Oxford is also the scientist Ernst Chain, involved in "penicillin – the discovery of the century.
"Even so, I thought what could be done? The wonder drug had been discovered but was as yet unusable. It was still at the laboratory stage and had not been fully tested… I promptly got [Chain’s] address from [my friends] and went there as fast as the taxi could take me.
"On his doorstep, I apologized for this sudden intrusion, but explained that I had come on a matter of great urgency. He invited me in and I explained the situation."
He said: "Penicillin’s my child, and I’m not allowed to see it or touch it. But what I’ll do is this – I’ll steal it!
He brought the penicillin in its test-tube straight from the laboratory. It had never been used on a patient before. My wife was the first case. The treatment was carried out in the greatest secrecy, and it saved her life."
With thanks to the Nemon family for permission to reproduce the extract from Oscar Nemon’s diary.
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