German-born British biochemist Sir Ernst Boris Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with pathologist Howard Walter Florey for their pioneering work on penicillin. Chain and Florey isolated and purified penicillin (which had been discovered in 1928 by Sir Alexander Fleming) and performed the first clinical trials of the antibiotic.
Chain graduated in chemistry and physiology from the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin and then engaged in research at the Institute of Pathology, Charité Hospital, Berlin (1930–33). Because of the anti-Semitic policies of Adolf Hitler, Chain was forced to flee Germany. At first, h e went to the University of Cambridge, working under Sir Frederick G. Hopkins, and then (1935) to the University of Oxford, where he worked with Florey on penicillin.
Chain is widely regarded as one of the major founders of the whole field of antibiotics. Apart from sanitation, the discovery of antibiotics was arguably the single most important revolution in medicine in terms of saving lives. Later he wrote a leading text on the subject. In 1940 he also discovered an enzyme penicillinase, that is used by bacteria to inactivate penicillin, negating its effectiveness.Chain knew that bacteria had become resistant to the drug and had already started working on the problem at this early date.
Other important scientific work by Chain included the study of snake venom, specifically the finding that its neurotoxic effects are caused by destroying an essential intracellular respiratory co-enzyme.From 1948 until 1961,Chain served as the director of the International Research Centre for Chemical Microbiology, Superior Institute of Health, Rome . He then joined the faculty of Imperial College, University of London, where he was professor of biochemistry (1961–73), professor emeritus and senior research fellow (1973–76), and fellow (1978–79). Chain was knighted in 1969.
In 1979,Chain died at the Mayo General Hospital . The Imperial College London biochemistry building is named after him.