The Mould in Dr Florey's Coat by Eric Lax Little, Brown $220 How easy it is to forget that, until a few decades ago, an injury as undaunting as a scratch from a rose thorn was all too often the prelude to a gruesome death. This is the story of the difficult birth of the first antibiotic, penicillin, and the people who turned the eponymous green mould into the most miraculous drug yet discovered. Surprisingly, the famous Scottish Nobel laureate Sir Alexander Fleming plays a minor and undistinguished role in this tale, and the legend of his famous contaminated Petri dish is swiftly debunked. A small band of little-known English scientists, led by an Australian, and a large group of American entrepreneurs receive the bulk of the kudos from author Eric Lax. The development of penicillin was essentially a war effort. With a miniscule budget, a team of Oxford University researchers struggled unsuccessfully during the 1930s to produce workable quantities of the mystery chemical. At that time, septicaemia was a leading cause of death, and every hospital had a ward for chronic bacterial infections. 'The particular horror of the septic wards,' Lax writes, 'was the ratio of useful care to illness: the only treatment for patients was bandaging and rest. There was nothing else. About half the people who came to these wards died.' Lax credits Australian Howard Florey, who was knighted and awarded the Nobel Prize together with Fleming yet remains relatively unknown, with changing all that. At first, Florey struggled to find acceptance in the hallowed halls of British academia. Not that this seems to have worried him. 'I endeavoured to look like the hardened criminal of the bush everyone expected,' he noted wryly in a letter home shortly after his arrival in Oxford. But he swiftly gained the respect and admiration of some of the leading lights in British medicine. They supported his research efforts until the second world war, when it became clear the drug was too important to be kept secret any longer, and Florey left for New York with a few precious vials of meat broth and mould to successfully seek American assistance in cracking the secret to mass production. Florey went on to many more great achievements, becoming president of the Royal Society, the highest honour for a British scientist, and provost of Queen's College, Oxford, but he and his team have never received the fame that is, Lax feels, their due. This book may be an overdue tome to set the record straight, but the narrative often grinds to a halt in the detail. The reader is frequently tempted to skim over extensive minutiae of private lives and internecine political disputes, and for those hoping to make it to the last page an abiding interest in medical history will prove an asset.