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On September 24 it will be the 117th birthday of Howard Florey, the Australian scientist who was part of the team which developed penicillin for medical use. Although it was Sir Alexander Fleming who discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin in 1928, it was Howard Florey and his research team who actually made penicillin into an effective medication.
While Professor of Pathology at Oxford, Howard and his team treated their first patient with penicillin in 1941. A police constable named Albert Alexander had been accidentally scratched with a rose thorn in his mouth, and was now suffering from severe infection, to such an extent that one of his eyes had to be removed. Within a day of receiving penicillin Albert began to recover, but due to the difficulties of making enough penicillin to continue treating him, he relapsed and died.
Let’s just take a moment to think about that. When did you ever hear of someone you knew who died from a scratch from a rose thorn? That was what the world was like before antibiotics – simple things like cuts, abrasions, and burns could kill you in prolonged, painful, and particularly nasty ways. If you somehow survived, you might be left chronically ill, crippled, or missing an eye or a limb.
It was too late to save Albert Alexander, but he hadn’t died in vain. Howard interested pharmaceutical companies in the United States in mass-producing quantities of penicillin, and the first patient was successfully treated for septicemia in 1942. By the end of World War II, penicillin had made a significant difference in saving the lives of wounded Allied forces, and Australia was the first country to make penicillin available for civilian use after the war.
In 1944 Howard was made a Knight Bachelor, and in 1945 shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with his fellow researcher Sir Ernst Chain, and with Sir Alexander Fleming. That same year he received the Lister Medal for contributions to surgical science, and in 1948 the US awarded him the Medal of Merit. Elected to the Royal Society in 1941, he became its president in 1958. In 1962 he became provost of Queen’s College at Oxford, and the college’s residential Florey Building was named in his honour.
In 1965 he was appointed a life peer, and became Baron Florey, as well as being appointed a Member of the Order of Merit. From that year until his death three years later, he was Chancellor of the Australian National University, and after he died he was given a memorial service at Westminster Abbey. The one thing that his discoveries didn’t bring him was money – he never patented penicillin, being advised that it would be unethical.
The discoveries of Howard Florey, along with Alexander Fleming and Ernst Chain, are estimated to have saved more than 82 million lives. Long-serving Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies said: In terms of world well-being, Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia.
I have particular reason to be grateful to Howard Florey, as one of that club with 82 million members. When I was a child, I contracted a serious lung infection, and only just pulled through, even with the assistance of modern antibiotics. Without them, I would have been toast. So if you enjoy reading this blog, give thanks to Howard Florey! It couldn’t exist without him.
The English surname Howard could be derived from Huard or Heward: related to the name Hugh, it combines the Germanic elements hug, meaning “mind, heart, spirit” and hard, meaning “brave, tough”. It could thus be translated as “brave heart”. Another possibility is that it is from Haward, an English form of the Old Norse Hávarðr, meaning “high guardian, chief guardian”. The surname Howard is first found in Norfolk.
The Howards are an aristocratic family which have been in the English Peerage since the 15th century, and remain the Premier Dukes of the Realm. The Howard family holds the Dukedom of Norfolk, as well as numerous earldoms and baronies. They hold the title of Earl Marshal, the highest hereditary position in the United Kingdom outside the Royal Family, responsible for organising coronations, state funerals, and the State Opening of Parliament.
The family’s founder was John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk: on his father’s side he was descended from King John, and on his mother’s from King Edward I. John Howard was the great-grandfather of two English queens: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both married to King Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth I was the first English monarch to be descended from John Howard, and Queen Elizabeth II the first British monarch to be one of his descendants.
After the English Reformation, many of the Howards remained in the Catholic faith, and they are still the highest profile Catholic family in England. Philip Howard, 20th Earl of Arundel, has been canonised as a saint and martyr: he was imprisoned for ten years by his second cousin Queen Elizabeth I, and died in the Tower of London. Philip’s grandson William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, was falsely implicated in a fictitious conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II, and executed: he has been beatified as a Catholic martyr.
The Howards dubiously claim descent from Hereward the Wake, a semi-legendary hero who led a resistance against the Normans after the Conquest. Hereward is an Old English name meaning “guardian of the army”. A possibly dodgy old pedigree says the Howards are descended from the Howarth family of Yorkshire – this surname means either “homestead on the hill” or “homestead with hawthorn hedges”. Howard has been used as a boy’s name since at least the 16th century, most likely due to the aristocratic family.
Famous namesakes include Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb; classic film director Howard Hawks; and eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes. Fictional Howards tends to be dads (such as Howard Cunningham on Happy Days, Howard “Ward” Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, and Howard Stark, the father of Iron Man superhero Tony Stark), or offbeat (like Howard the Duck, Howard Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory, and Howard Moon from The Mighty Boosh).
In Australia, Howard was #122 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1940s at #101; it hasn’t charted since the 1980s. In the UK, Howard was in the Top 100 from the late 19th century until the 1920s, but never got very high; in 2013 there were 16 babies named Howard born in England/Wales. The name has been much more popular in the United States: it was in the Top 100 from the late 19th century to 1958, peaked during World War I at #25, and has only been off the Top 1000 once, in 2013; it returned last year and is currently #986.
Howard is a dated name, although it has never been popular and might more properly be described as vintage. It sounds sturdy and dependable, has a good meaning, and can be shortened to either Howie or Ward. An issue in Australia is that it’s strongly associated with former conservative Prime Minister John Howard, whose term was from 1996 to 2007, often called the Howard Years or Howard Era; it may not be pure coincidence that the name disappeared from the charts in the 1980s when John Howard was Federal Treasurer.
Howard received an approval rating of 51%. 18% of people thought the name Howard was too dated, while 16% were put off the name by former prime minister John Howard. However, 14% saw it as old-fashioned yet charming.
(Picture shows a scene from the 2009 film Breaking the Mould, with Dominic West as Howard Florey)