In science the dead-end finding can be as important as the 'Eureka!' moment, as penicillin pioneer Ronald Bentley (PhD Chemistry 1945) found out.
Dr Ronald Bentley, who died on 6 June 2011 aged 89, was equally at home in the kitchen as he was in the lab. Away from research, he foraged for his favourite cooking ingredient – mushrooms – in nearby woods or on the local golf course. His baking was renowned, not only for the results from the oven, but also for the biochemistry lessons that he gave his family as the yeast got to work.
Ronald’s fascination with fungi arose when pursuing a doctorate at Imperial. Ineligible on health grounds for military conscription during the Second World War, he served the war effort by researching the production of penicillin.
After studies at Derby Technical College, he joined Imperial’s Department of Chemistry in 1943, 15 years after Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in a laboratory in St Mary’s Hospital. Progress in applying it to kill pathogenic bacteria in the human body had stalled in subsequent years.
As Ronald began his investigations, war had made research efforts in the field more urgent. Contributing to a project involving 1,000 scientists in the United Kingdom and the United States, he looked for a way to chemically synthesise the new antibiotic, a method that was then assumed necessary for mass production. However, all attempts to chemically engineer penicillin failed.
This defeat marked a turning point in drug discovery history. Scientists had revealed that the microorganisms present in mould were essential to the production of penicillin and that chemistry principles could not recreate this natural process. As Ronald himself observed on a blog in 2008, the early 1940s marked the start of the antibiotic revolution leading to the successful control of many previously intractable infectious diseases.
Doc B, as Ronald was known to colleagues and students, devoted his career to deciphering how bacteria and fungi biosynthesise natural products, publishing over 200 papers in research roles at Colombia University and the University of Pittsburgh in the United States. He was proud of the education he had received at Imperial and remained a generous donor to the College 60 years after his own graduation.
Illustration: Donna McKenzie
This article first appeared in Imperial Magazine, Issue 37. You can view and download a whole copy of the magazine, from www.imperial.ac.uk/imperialmagazine.
Article text (excluding photos or graphics) available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons license.
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