The BBC are doing an excellent drama series on medicine and Breaking The Mould had a particular resonance for me. Prof Norman Heatley was the young chemist who despite having few resources and less money helped Florey manufacture enough Penicillin to prove that it really was the wonder drug of the 20th Century. Surely it was Sir Alexender Fleming who discovered penicillin you ask; after all he got all the credit.
Well as the drama shows, Fleming discovered the powers of penicillin by accident then completely ignored the global potential of it as a life-saving treatment. It was Florey, Chain and Heatley who made it a viable treatment in time to help save the lives of thousands of troops in WWII and millions of people around the world. Every one of us has used it to stop an infection that otherwise had the potential to kill us.
Many years later, in 1979 I came across Prof Norman Heatley when my wife found us digs for our third year at Oxford. He was a genial, small, sun-tanned man who struck me as being an eccentric Professor Brainstorm type character. He drilled holes into the boot of his brand new Ford to insert a wooden contraption to help carry large loads. His phone was kept in a cradle that he would unplug and take from room to room in a precursor of a wireless handset. He pulped apples and made beer and even had a canoe with a sail which he plied on the River Cherwell. But most of all he was the most generous man I ever met in my life.
Some students were coming from Australia to tour Europe and asked him to help them rent a camper van. He bought one and lent it to them. Whenever we had a noisy party in the flat which abutted his bedroom he would ask solicitously in the morning whether he had disturbed us with his snoring. He gave us free run of his garden - including an ingenious summer house that rotated to catch the sun's rays.
By chance he was a Fellow at my own college, and once I started asking about the man stories came pouring out of the panelled walls of Lincoln College. He used to keep the menus from High Table; not - as younger dons thought - for sentimental reasons, but because their reverse side was blank and he could use them for his card index. Of an evening he would break a wine glass into a bowl and glue it back together to keep his hands dexterous enough for the chemistry lab.
But perhaps the most important quality of Norman's was that he willingly gave away the patent for the manufacture of Penicillin - a patent worth hundreds of millions. He believed (along with Florey) that penicillin was a naturally-occurring organism and that it should not be patented. Needless to say when he went to America to help them manufacture it in industrial quantities he, and Oxford University, were ripped off unconscionably. When I asked him about how he felt about forgoing all those millions, he was amused at my question.
For a young man in his early twenties I could not understand his point of view, and indeed Oxford and other universities now guard their patents far more jealously. But perhaps Norman was onto something. All he cared about back in the dark days of the war was getting the drug replicated as quickly and as widely as possible. That was his reward - to know that he was part of something that has really changed the human race. No money can buy you that level of self-actualisation. So by the time I met him he was as serene as Ghandi and emotionally wealthy as Mother Theresa.
It's only now that I understand that what makes a man is not how much he acquires in his lifetime; it's how much he gives away.