The beginning of October marks Nobel Prize season, as the year’s winners are announced in Oslo. For those who haven’t been named this year, there is now a rare opportunity to get a Nobel Prize, at M.S. Rau in New Orleans.
The high-end antiques and fine art store just acquired the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine presented to Ernst Chain, one of the three honorees that year for the discovery and development of penicillin.
“Nobel prizes do not come up” on the market, M.S. Rau CEO Bill Rau said. “The great majority of people… it would descend through their family as a badge of honor,” as it is “the most prestigious prize in the world.”
Nevertheless, he heard “through the Jewish geography grapevine” that this prize might be for sale, and he had a friend in England approach the family.
“It took some time to get it done,” Rau said. After the five or six weeks to close the deal, he then had to wait a few weeks to get an export license from the British government, a mandatory step for taking anything over a certain price out of England.
While Rau has owned many amazing items over the years, Chain’s Nobel is “one of the coolest things we have ever owned,” he said. “Penicillin is arguably the most important drug that has ever been found.” It has saved hundreds of millions of lives, and Rau said that if it did not exist, the average human lifespan would be 10 years shorter. “How many people would have died of strep throat or pneumonia?”
The 1945 prize was presented to Chain, along with Alexander Fleming, who first discovered penicillin, and Howard Florey, Chain’s research partner. Nobels are awarded to as many as three individuals who contributed to an endeavor.
The physical prize is a 23-karat gold medal weighing almost 8 ounces. It is accompanied by a fitted box and a hand-illustrated Nobel diploma, signed by the entire Nobel Institute. Chain’s original typewritten acceptance speech is also included. In 1945, the cash prize was around 121,000 Swedish kroner; the 2023 prizes were SEK 11 million, approximately $1 million.
Chain was born in Berlin in 1906. His father was a chemist and industrialist, and Chain became interested in chemistry during visits to his father’s laboratory. His father died when Chain was 13 years old.
He graduated from Friedrich-Wilheim University in Berlin in 1930, and worked for three years at Berlin’s Charite Hospital in enzyme research. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he knew he would not be safe there as a Jew, and moved to England with about 10 British Pounds in his pocket. His mother and sister stayed behind, and were ultimately murdered in a concentration camp.
In England, Chain worked at University College Hospital, then moved to the School of Biochemistry in Cambridge, where he finished his doctorate.
In 1935, he started at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, working with Howard Florey, with whom he would eventually share the Nobel Prize. Florey suggested that Chain work on lysozyme, which had been identified by Alexander Fleming in 1920. During that work, he came across Fleming’s paper on penicillin, and how Fleming had tried but failed to purify penicillin.
In 1928, Fleming had been studying staphylococcus bacteria, and later said that if he had been neat, he never would have discovered penicillin. He had left samples out overnight, and one of the cultures was contaminated with mold — which cleared out a zone where the bacteria would not grow. He realized something in the mold was killing the bacteria, and isolated it. But he didn’t know what to do with it, or how to grow it so it could be of further use.
Florey and Chain started working on penicillin in 1938 as a scientific exercise, without considering its possible benefit to humanity.
In 1940, they did an experiment on eight mice that had been infected with strep. The four that received penicillin were fine, the other four were dead the next day.
The decided to do a human trial and grew a supply. In 1941, they treated Albert Alexander, a police officer who had a lethal infection from a rose bush scratch. They gave him penicillin and the infection began to subside. The infection was almost gone when they ran out of their supply, after which the infection came back and killed him.
Chain, who had figured out how to isolate and concentrate penicillin, vowed he would not do another test until they had an adequate supply. The next year, they treated a woman, Anne Miller, who made a full recovery. However, it took six weeks for them to grow the amount that had been used to treat her, hardly a sustainable model. They had to figure out a way to grow penicillin in quantity, and succeeded in 1943.
That was fortuitous, because Florey developed pneumonia that year, and his life was saved by their research.
In 1944, penicillin was being deployed among Allied troops in World War II, and it is believed to have saved 2 million lives during the war.
In his Nobel acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1945, Chain said “as a member of one of the most cruelly persecuted races in the world I am profoundly grateful to Providence that it has fallen to me, together with my friend Sir Howard Florey, to originate this work on penicillin which has helped to alleviate the suffering of the wounded soldiers of Britain, the country that has adopted me, and the wounded soldiers of our Allies, among them many thousands belonging to my own race, in their bitter struggle against one of the blood lost and most inhuman tyrannies the world has ever seen.”
He emphasized the role of scientists in pursuing discoveries for the greater good, and not to ignore the fight against barbarism by saying it is the role only of the politician.
After the war, he worked in Rome, becoming the scientific director of the International Research Centre for Chemical Microbiology. He returned to London in 1961 as professor of biochemistry at Imperial College. He died in 1979.
Chain served on the board of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and was a supporter of Jewish education in England and beyond.
Of the 954 Nobel Prizes awarded through 2022, at least 212 have gone to Jews, or individuals with at least one Jewish parent.
Rau said a physics medal from 1965, without the accompanying folder and speech, sold for $1 million at auction, while James Watson’s 1962 Nobel in medicine went for over $5.3 million in 2014.
The Chain Nobel is priced well below Watson’s, Rau said.
“I get excited about history,” Rau said. “This is history, and it is history for good. The discovery of penicillin was one of the great goods of all time.”