It’s difficult for me to say who is (or was) my greatest scientific hero. Partly, I think, because growing up I never really thought of science as a potential career (in fact, the only thing I can remember about careers advice in school was mastic asphalt spreading. Whether that was a do or don’t do escapes me, in much the same way that I can remember Hans and Lieselotte and Ich habe mir das Bein gebrochen but have forgotten what came next). I didn’t really think of anything as a career until as late as possible–I did three science ‘A’ levels and combined my two favourites to read Biochemistry, and just did stuff because I liked it.
But I did have heroes, after a fashion and at different stages of my life. David Attenborough, obviously. Harry Secombe was another one, but nothing to do with science. Oddly enough, Fred Hoyle was an early influence, and all because of a book my mother gave me when (at about age 13) it became apparent–to her at least–that I was fated to be a scientist. She thought that seeing as I also like science fiction it might combine the two interests.
The book was Diseases from Space, authored by the great man with Chandra Wickramasinghe, which developed the panspermia hypothesis into a plausible (to me, back then at least) account of how common diseases (‘flu, the common cold, etc.) might be caused by microbes being carried around the solar system in comets and the like. Hoyle is of course more famous for his theory of nucleosynthesis in stars, and for coining the mocking phrase ‘big bang’ in describing (a current theory of) the formation of the known universe. Despite being roundly mocked, he and Wickramasinghe pushed the panspermia theory pretty hard, and I had the honour of inviting Wickramasinghe to guest edit an issue of The Biochemist several years ago, in which the two of them brought us up to date with their thinking.
I will lay claim to one more scientific hero. My undergraduate degree took four years: the first three were fairly standard, with lab practicals and lectures and tutorials, with exams at the end. But the fourth year was research based–I had to write an extended essay, sit a couple of exams that had only two questions apiece (which tells you something about the depth of knowledge required), and complete a lab-based research project. I did my lab project in The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, famed for being the place where, in of the darkest days of the Second World War, Howard Florey and his team gave us penicillin.
There I managed to bump into some real heroes. Ed Abraham for example, who developed the cephalosporins (which probably helped save my life a few years back). But most of all, Norman Heatley–the technical wizard who made the growth, extraction and quantification of penicillin possible. Henry Harris probably said it best:
Without Fleming, no Chain; without Chain, no Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin.
Norman would never, it seems, have sought fame. He wasn’t even recognized by the Nobel committee. He is however, a true scientific hero.