You have one hour, Mr Heussler

A young chemist reveals his unwitting role in the 1967 Six Day War.
Image of Don Heussler

The author struggling with the winter weather, and the laundry: London 1967

In 1964, after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney, I decided to go to England to work and also to visit all those places of my “remote upbringing”. The next year I found myself a job as a “production chemist” at Beecham Research Laboratories (BRL), a fledgling company owned by the Beecham Group, manufacturer of Maclean’s toothpaste, Ribena and other well-known products.

One of BRL’s research projects was to extend the usefulness of the then 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 US, it was a small British team working at Beecham’s research labs that isolated the nucleus and patented a whole series of “semi-synthetic” penicillins.

In 1967 I supervised 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 in, introduced himself politely and pronounced my German surname very correctly. He enquired if I knew who he was. I acknowledged that he was the Managing Director. The term “Oxbridge” came into my impressionable young mind, but not to my tongue.

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

“Mr Heussler, could I sit and discuss a situation with you?” 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.

Image of Heussler in the lab

Machine filling of one gram vials of sterile injectable penicillin at BRL in 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 3000 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 1500 of those vials immediately,” said Oxbridge.

I told him 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 personally 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. 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 learned an important lesson: defend the standards and ethics of your workplace, and recognise when people of intelligence and rank know better.