A young chemist reveals his unwitting role in the 1967 Six Day War.

Don Heussler, London, 1967

Don Heussler, London, 1967

In 1965, after graduating with a degree in chemical Engineering from the University of Sydney and gaining some industrial experience locally I decided to go to England to work and to visit all those wonderful places I had only read about. Early the next year I found myself a job as a “production chemist” at Beecham Research Laboratories (BRL), a fledgeling company owned by the Beecham Group, manufacturers of Maclean’s toothpaste, Ribena and other well-known products.

One of BRL’s research projects was to extend the usefulness of the ordinary penicillin V. Its business targets were to remove impurities which contributed to some “allergy” to the drug but especially to make it effective against a broader range of micro-organisms.

The chemical key to this second target was to cleave the penicillin nucleus itself and add chemical side-chains to produce new molecules with new properties. Despite the resources directed to this effort in the USA, it was a small British team working at Beecham Research Laboratories that isolated the nucleus and patented a whole series of “semi-synthetic penicillins”.

By 1967, I was supervising a team of people who would blend the antibiotic powders, then package them into glass vials for injection using sophisticated packaging machines. All this had to be done fully gowned and masked up, in a “sterile area”. Almost all the world supply of these products came from this facility.

One afternoon, an elegant management type walked up to my desk outside the sterile area. He introduced himself politely and pronounced my German origin surname, very correctly. He enquired if I knew who he was. I acknowledged that he was the “Big Chief”. The term “Oxbridge” came to my impressionable young mind but not to my tongue.

“Mr Heussler, could I sit with you and discuss a special situation?” he asked. “I have just had a phone call from Tel Aviv, from Ernst Chain” he said “do you know who he is?” I shook my head. He explained that Chain was the brilliant chemist who was instrumental in developing penicillin (along with Alexander Fleming and Howard Florey) and was currently a technical adviser to BRL.

Machine filling of sterile injectable penicillin, BRL, 1967

Machine filling of sterile injectable penicillin, BRL, 1967

I understand that your department has just filled the first batch of our newest penicillin, which Ernst tells me is very effective against pseudomonas aeruginosa?” Oxbridge asked. (This was an opportunistic bacterium, often implicated in the death of burns victims. Early antibiotics had little impact on it).

“That’s true” I said.  “We packaged 3,000 vials yesterday and they are on those trays you can see in the sterile area, still unlabelled.”

“Well, Mr Heussler, Israel is fighting a bitter (Six Day) war against the Arabs at the moment and Ernst has three Israeli tank crews in Tel Aviv who are badly burned. He needs 1,500 of those vials immediately,“ said Oxbridge.

I told him that we couldn’t do that because the products were not labelled, had not been tested for sterility and the potency tests were not complete. We would be breaking our strongest pharmaceutical ethics to release any product under those conditions.

Oxbridge smiled faintly. “Mr Heussler, when the phone call comes from the brilliant chemist who….allowed the first successful trials of penicillin in humans, and when he is the technical adviser to our company and when he was the recipient in 1945 of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and given that he is Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College, London and a Fellow of the Royal Society to boot, guess what?  He gets EXACTLY WHAT HE ASKS FOR!“

“I will be leaving for Heathrow in the Rolls, in just one hour to personally deliver those vials to a special aircraft that I have arranged. You will pack them up nicely for me, won’t you?”

“Of course,” I responded meekly.

That is exactly what happened. Two weeks later I received a hefty promotion to Manufacturing Manager at double the salary. I had also learned an important lesson: defend the standards and ethics of your workplace and recognise when people of intelligence and rank know better.

Footnotes;(1) Sir Ernst Chain received his knighthood  a few years later. (2) This article was first published in the University of Sydney Alumni Magazine, 2012.