Ernst Chain: Antibiotics Pioneer
by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D. *
Ernst Chain and his colleague Howard Florey are credited with "one of the greatest discoveries in medical science ever made."1 Together with Sir Alexander Fleming, they were awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. What is less well known, however, is that this preeminent biochemist openly opposed Darwinism on the basis of his scientific research.
A Brilliant Career
Ernst Boris Chain (1906–1979) was born in Berlin, Germany, where he obtained his Ph.D. in biochemistry and physiology. Although he became a highly respected scientist, as a Jew he foresaw what was coming and left his home country soon after Hitler came to power.2 He worked in England as a research scientist at Cambridge, also studying for a Ph.D. there, and then at Oxford University until 1948.3
After Oxford, Chain worked in research and as a professor at several universities. The promise of better equipment lured him to Rome, but Britain, conscious of its loss, soon enticed him back by building him a new research laboratory.2 His lifelong work was "all about the mystery of life,"4 and during his 40-year career he accomplished "amazingly diverse achievements"5--even feats once considered impossible, such as the production of lysergic acid by the deep fermentation process.6
A Major Founder of Antibiotics
In 1938, Chain stumbled across Alexander Fleming's 1929 paper on penicillin in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, which he brought to the attention of his colleague Florey.7 During their research, Chain isolated and purified penicillin. It was largely this work that earned him his numerous honors and awards, including a fellow of the Royal Society and numerous honorary degrees,8 the Pasteur Medal, the Paul Ehrlich Centenary Prize, the Berzelius Medal, and a knighthood.9
Chain was selected as a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize specifically for his research that demonstrated the structure of penicillin and successfully isolated the active substance by freeze-drying the mold broth to make its use practical.10 When Chain was doing his research it required 125 gallons of broth to produce enough penicillin powder for one tablet! Now the same tablet is mass-produced for a few cents.
An internationally respected scientist, Chain is widely regarded as one of the major founders of the whole field of antibiotics. Aside from sanitation, the discovery of antibiotics was arguably the single most important revolution in medicine in terms of saving lives. Chain later wrote a leading text on the subject. 11 In 1940 he also discovered penicillinase, an enzyme that is used by bacteria to inactivate penicillin, negating its effectiveness.12 Chain knew that bacteria had become resistant to the drug and had already started working on the problem at this early date.
Other important scientific work by Chain included the study of snake venom, specifically the finding that its neurotoxic effects are caused by destroying an essential intracellular respiratory coenzyme.
A "Hypothesis Based on No Evidence"
One of Chain's lifelong professional concerns was the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution, which he concluded was a "very feeble attempt" to explain the origin of species based on assumptions so flimsy, "mainly of morphological and anatomical nature," that "it can hardly be called a theory."13
This mechanistic concept of the phenomena of life in its infinite varieties of manifestations which purports to ascribe the origin and development of all living species, animals, plants and micro-organisms, to the haphazard blind interplay of the forces of nature in the pursuance of one aim only, namely, that for the living systems to survive, is a typical product of the naive 19th century euphoric attitude to the potentialities of science which spread the belief that there were no secrets of nature which could not be solved by the scientific approach given only sufficient time.14
A major reason why he rejected evolution was because he concluded that the postulate that biological development and survival of the fittest was "entirely a consequence of chance mutations" was a "hypothesis based on no evidence and irreconcilable with the facts."15
These classic evolutionary theories are a gross oversimplification of an immensely complex and intricate mass of facts, and it amazes me that they were swallowed so uncritically and readily, and for such a long time, by so many scientists without a murmur of protest.15
Chain concluded that he "would rather believe in fairies than in such wild speculation" as Darwinism.13 Chain's eldest son, Benjamin, added: "There was no doubt that he did not like the theory of evolution by natural selection--he disliked theories...especially when they assumed the form of dogma. He also felt that evolution was not really a part of science, since it was, for the most part, not amenable to experimentation--and he was, and is, by no means alone in this view."16
Problems with Evolution
Another reason he did not consider evolution a scientific theory was because it is obvious that "living systems do not survive if they are not fit to survive."15 Chain recognized that the problem was not the survival of the fittest but the arrival of the fittest, and that mutations do produce some variety:
There is no doubt that such variants do arise in nature and that their emergence can and does make some limited contribution towards the evolution of species. The open question is the quantitative extent and significance of this contribution.15
He added that evolution "willfully neglects the principle of teleological purpose which stares the biologist in the face wherever he looks, whether he be engaged in the study of different organs in one organism, or even of different subcellular compartments in relation to each other in a single cell, or whether he studies the interrelation and interactions of various species."15
He was especially aware of how the research in his own field pointed to problems with evolution. In particular, Chain noted our modern knowledge of the genetic code and that its function in transmitting genetic information seems quite incompatible with classical Darwinian ideas of evolution.17
Evolution, Morals, and Faith
Another concern about evolution that Chain expressed was evolution's moral implications. In a 1972 speech he presented in London, he stated:
It is easy to draw analogies between the behavior of apes and man, and draw conclusions from the behavior of birds and fishes on human ethical behavior, but ...this fact does not allow the development of ethical guidelines for human behavior. All attempts to do this...suffer from the failure to take into account the all important fact of man's capability to think and to be able to control his passions, and are therefore doomed to failure.18
Chain did not accept some scientists' estimation that "religious belief" did not deserve serious consideration, countering that scientific theories themselves are ephemeral.
In a lecture which Crick, who, together with Watson and Wilkins, discovered the bihelical structure of DNA, gave a couple of years ago to students at University College...he said...that it was ridiculous to base serious decisions on religious belief. This seems to me a very sweeping and dogmatic conclusion...scientific theories, in whatever field, are ephemeral and...may be even turned upside down by the discovery of one single new fact....This has happened time and again even in the exactest of sciences, physics and astronomy, and applies even more so to the biological field, where the concepts and theories are much less securely founded than in physics and are much more liable to be overthrown at a moment's notice.15
One might dismiss Chain's view on Darwinism as simply a result of his faith, but Clark stresses that how "directly such views were linked to his religious beliefs is open to endless argument."18 Chain's eldest son wrote that his father's concerns about evolution were not based on religion, but rather on science. Chain, though, made it clear that he was very concerned about the effect of Darwinism on human behavior.
Any speculation and conclusions pertaining to human behaviour drawn on the basis of Darwinian evolutionary theories...must be treated with the greatest caution and reserve....a less discriminating section of the public may enjoy reading about comparisons between the behaviour of apes and man, but this approach--which, by the way, is neither new nor original--does not really lead us very far.... Apes, after all, unlike man, have not produced great prophets, philosophers, mathematicians, writers, poets, composers, painters and scientists. They are not inspired by the divine spark which manifests itself so evidently in the spiritual creation of man and which differentiates man from animals.19
Clark concluded that Chain wrote with such flair against Darwinism that his writings "would do credit to a modern Creationist rather than an accomplished scientist."13 Chain made it very clear what he believed about the Creator and our relationship to Him. He wrote that scientists "looking for ultimate guidance in questions of moral responsibility" would do well to "turn, or return, to the fundamental and lasting values of the code of ethical behaviour forming part of the divine message which man was uniquely privileged to receive through the intermediation of a few chosen individuals."19
Sir Derek Barton wrote that there are "few scientists who, by the application of their science, have made a greater contribution to human welfare than Sir Ernst Chain."20 His work founded the field of antibiotics, which has saved the lives of multimillions of persons. Chain is only one of many modern scientists who have concluded that modern neo-Darwinism is not only scientifically bankrupt, but also harmful to society.
- Masters, D. 1946. Miracle Drug, the Inner History of Penicillin. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 7.
- Asimov, I. 1972. Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Garden City, NY: Double Day and Company, 712.
- Schlessinger, B. and J. 1986. The Who's Who of Nobel Prize Winners. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 93.
- Lax, E. 2004. The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat. New York: Henry Holt, 63.
- Mansford, K.R.L. 1977. Profile of Sir Ernst Chain, in Hems, D.A. (ed.). Biologically Active Substances--Exploration and Exploitation. Chichester, NY: John Wiley and Sons, xxi.
- Barton, D. 1977. Introductory Remarks, in Hems, D.A. (ed.). Biologically Active Substances--Exploration and Exploitation. Chichester, NY: John Wiley and Sons, xviii.
- Lax, The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat, 79.
- Ibid, 253.
- Curtis, R. 1993. Great Lives: Medicine. New York: Scribner, 77-90.
- McMurray, E. 1995. Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 334.
- Chain, E., H. Florey and N. Heatley. 1949. Antibiotics. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Barton, Biologically Active Substances, xxiii.
- Clark, R. W. 1985. The Life of Ernst Chain: Penicillin and Beyond. New York: St. Martin's Press, 147.
- Chain, E. 1970. Social Responsibility and the Scientist in Modern Western Society. London: The Council of Christians and Jews, 24-25.
- Chain, Social Responsibility and the Scientist, 25.
- Clark, The Life of Ernst Chain, 147-148.
- Chain, Social Responsibility and the Scientist, 25-26.
- Clark, The Life of Ernst Chain, 148.
- Chain, Social Responsibility and the Scientist, 26.
- Barton, Biologically Active Substances, xxvii.
* Dr. Bergman is Professor of Biology at Northwest State College in Ohio.
Cite this article: Bergman, J. 2008. Ernst Chain: Antiobiotics Pioneer. Acts & Facts. 37 (4): 10.