This prize is named in honour of Norman Heatley. It was previously advertised as the Chemical Biology Interface Forum Early Career Award, and was established in 2008.
Norman Heatley graduated from St John's College, Cambridge, with a degree in Natural Sciences. He then undertook a PhD in Biochemistry, also at Cambridge, after which he moved to Oxford to work at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.
Although Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he did not realise its full potential. It was Professor Howard Florey and his team at Oxford who recognised that penicillin could combat bacterial infection. Heatley played a key role in developing culture methods for the penicillium mould and in extracting and purifying the active 'penicillin' from the cultures in order to test it on animals and eventually on humans also. He designed the specially commissioned ceramic 'bed pans' to grow these cultures on a larger scale.
An Abingdon policeman dying of septicaemia, Albert Alexander, was the first human to be treated with penicillin. As the drug was in such short supply, it was even extracted from the patient's urine on a daily basis in order to be re administered. Dramatic improvements were seen; however, there was not sufficient penicillin to continue with the treatment.
The major drug companies in wartime Britain were already overstretched and so could not be persuaded to attempt to mass produce penicillium cultures. Florey and Heatley flew to the USA where they persuaded several of the largest pharmaceutical companies to collaborate in the research to find better strains of penicillium and better methods of culture, extraction and purification. By 1943, mass production had begun and casualties in the Second World War could be treated. The full potential of penicillin then became clear.
Florey was advised by University lawyers and the MRC that he should not take out patents on his team's discoveries, although subsequently, patents of some of the methods developed were filed in the USA.
Fleming received a Nobel Prize and more than 160 public honours for his part in the discovery and development of penicillin, the world's first antibiotic. Heatley received one honorary degree, a DM from Oxford, the first awarded to a non-medic, and two honorary fellowships and an OBE from the nation for his work.
The prize was established through a bequest from Adrien Albert. In 2021, the purposes of this Trust were amended, and remaining monies were combined with other generous bequests and donations to become part of the RSC Recognition Fund.