Who was Sir Ernst Chain?

ANYONE who has visited the county town will probably have noticed the road sign for Sir Ernst Chain Road in Castlebar. But do you know anything about him and his Mayo connections?

Tom Gillespie delved into Chain's life-story in his weekly column for The Connaught Telegraph:

I HAVE been asked on several occasions as to the background to the Sir Ernst Chain Road that links the Moneen to Golden Mile (or Claremorris) roads in Castlebar.

Many would not be familiar with his name but thanks to Mayo Genealogy Group we can get a glimpse of who Chain was.

Members of the now defunct Castlebar Town Council decided some years ago to honour Chain, a Nobel prizewinner, who resided for many years in Mulranny.

Chain was born in Berlin, the son of Margarete (née Eisner) and Michael Chain, who was a chemist and industrialist dealing in chemical products.

His family was Jewish. His father emigrated from Russia to study chemistry abroad and his mother was from Berlin. In 1930, he received his degree in chemistry from Friedrich Wilhelm University.

After the Nazis came to power, Chain understood that, being Jewish, he would no longer be safe in Germany. He left Germany and moved to England, arriving on April 2, 1933, with £10 in his pocket. Geneticist and physiologist J.B.S. Haldane helped him obtain a position at University College Hospital, London.

After a couple of months he was accepted as a PhD student at Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge University, where he began working on phospholipids under the direction of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins.

In 1935, he accepted a job at Oxford University as a lecturer in pathology. During this time he worked on a range of research topics, including snake venoms, tumour metabolism, lysozymes, and biochemistry techniques.

In 1939, he joined Howard Florey to investigate natural antibacterial agents produced by microorganisms. This led him and Florey to revisit the work of Alexander Fleming, who had described penicillin nine years earlier.

Chain and Florey went on to discover penicillin's therapeutic action and its chemical composition.

He also theorised the structure of penicillin, which was confirmed by x-ray crystallography done by Dorothy Hodgkin. For this research, Chain, Florey and Fleming received the Nobel Prize in 1945.

Towards the end of World War II, Chain learned that his mother and sister had perished in the war.

After the war, Chain moved to Rome to work at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (Superior Institute of Health). He returned to Britain in 1964 as the founder and head of the biochemistry department at Imperial College London, where he stayed until his retirement, specialising in fermentation technologies. He was knighted soon after in 1969.

He was a lifelong friend of Professor Albert Neuberger, who he met in Berlin in the 1930s.

On March 17, 1948, Chain was appointed a fellow by the Royal Society.

In 1948, he married Anne Beloff-Chain, sister of Max Beloff and Nora Beloff. In his later life, his Jewish identity became increasingly important to him.

He became a member of the board of governors of the Weizmann Institute of Science at Rehovot in 1954, and later a member of the executive council. He raised his children securely within the Jewish faith, arranging much extracurricular tuition for them. His views were expressed most clearly in his speech, 'Why I am a Jew', given at the World Jewish Congress Conference of Intellectuals in 1965.

Chain died at Mayo General Hospital in 1979. The Imperial College London biochemistry building is named after him, as is a road in Castlebar.

Ernst was a worldwide traveller but he always had a love of the unspoilt landscape of Mayo.

He built a house for the family in Mulranny and moved to Mayo in the winter of 1970.

Ernst and his wife Anne spent many vacations in Mulranny, where they rented a cottage. They often praised the beauty and peace of the area and many of the locals befriended them.

Sir Ernst's other passion was music and in his childhood he had dreamed of being a musician.

Professor Chain is author or co-author of many scientific papers and contributor to important monographs on penicillin and antibiotics.

In 1946, he was awarded the Silver Berzelius Medal of the Swedish Medical Society, the Pasteur Medal of the Institut Pasteur and of the Societé de Chimie Biologique, and a prize from the Harmsworth Memorial Fund.

In 1954, he was awarded the Paul Ehrlich Centenary Prize; in 1957 the Gold Medal for Therapeutics of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London; and in 1962 the Marotta Medal of the Società Chimica Italiana. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949.

He holds honorary degrees of the Universities of Liège, Bordeaux, Turin, Paris, La Plata, Cordoba, Brasil, and Montevideo, and is a member or fellow of many learned societies in several countries: these include the Societé Philomatique, Paris; the New York Academy of Medicine; the Accademia dei Lincei and the Accademia dei XL, Rome; the Académie de Médicine, Académie des Sciences, Paris; the Real Academia de Ciencias, Madrid; the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovoth, Israel; the National Institute of Sciences, India; the Società Chimica Italiana; and the Finnish Biochemical Society.

Ernst Chain passed away in 1979 in the county hospital in Castlebar having lived nine years in Mulranny.

When he was admitted to the hospital he very generously praised the dedication of the young doctor (Ashoka Jahnavi-Prasad) who had attended him and said 'Future of medicine is safe in your hands', which turned out to be prophetic as later on he did make a significant contribution to medical research.

Sir Ernst was buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Rushey, London.

It is fitting that the nine members of the old council saw fit to honour Sir Ernst by naming the road in his honour.