Yesterday marked the 106th anniversary of the birth of Sir Ernst Chain (1906-1979), the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist whose pioneering work on antibiotics has saved countless lives since the 1940s.

He lived in Wimbledon during his last years.

The development of penicillin brought Sir Ernst the Nobel Prize in 1945 along with Sir Alexander Fleming and the Australian-born pathologist Sir Howard Florey. Chain spent his last years living both in Wimbledon and Ireland.

He was resident at 9 North View, Wimbledon Common, for six years after his retirement from 1973 until his death in 1979. An English Heritage blue plaque has been in place at North View since 2003.

Chain was born in Berlin to a Russian Jewish industrialist father and a German mother. A talented pianist, he might have had a career in music but a cousin convinced him that science would be more rewarding.

Although he took lessons in conducting, he graduated from Friedrich-Wilhelm University in 1930 with a degree in chemistry and physiology.

He worked on enzyme research for three years at the Charité Hospital, Berlin, before moving to Britain in 1933 following the Nazi takeover of Germany. He first studied phospholipids at Cambridge University and then switched to Oxford to lecture in pathology.

His research work also covered subjects ranging from snake venom, tumours and lysozymes to the invention and development of methods for biochemical micro-analysis techniques.

During the Second World War he worked alongside Howard Florey on natural bacterial agents produced by micro-organisms.

Chain found Alexander Fleming’s notes from back in 1928 when Fleming had first discovered the penicillium notatum mold in his laboratory.

Together with Florey, Chain investigated ways to purify it. As a result, he was instrumental in creating penicillin as the world’s first antibiotic drug, saving millions of people from infections ever since.

For their work, he, Florey, and Fleming himself were recognized by the Nobel Prize board at the end of the war.

Chain’s subsequent research covered diverse areas including the carbohydrate-amino acid relationship in nervous tissue, the action of insulin, fermentation technology, lysergic acid production in submerged culture, and isolation of new fungal metabolites.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949 and would go on to hold honorary degrees and awards from scientific institutions in many countries of Europe and the Americas.

Chain lost his own family in the Holocaust but returned to continental Europe after the war to work in Rome as scientific director of the International Research Centre for Chemical Microbiology.

In 1948, he married Anne Beloff, sister of Nora Beloff, the Observer newspaper’s famous political correspondent, and Sir Max Beloff, founder of the University of Buckingham.

Anne was a fellow biochemist who assisted him with his research. The couple had three children. In 1954 Chain became a governor of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Returning to Britain, he held the post of Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College, London University, from 1961 until retirement in 1973 and was knighted in 1969. He continued to lecture and always stressed the importance of biochemistry to medical research. He still played the piano too.

He was staying at his home at Mulranny in the west of Ireland when taken ill and died at Mayo General Hospital on 12 August 1979.

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