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Chain, Sir Ernst Boris (1906-1979)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0120 PP/EBC
Held at: Wellcome Library
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Full title: Chain, Sir Ernst Boris (1906-1979)
Date(s): 1906-1980
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 69 boxes.
Name of creator(s): Chain | Sir | Ernst Boris | 1906-1979 | Knight | biochemist
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

Chain was born in 1906 in Berlin where his Russian-born father, an industrial chemist, had settled. Both his parents were Jewish. He graduated in chemistry and physiology from the Friedrich-Wilhelm University, Berlin, Germany in 1930 and undertook research in the chemical department of the Institute of Pathology at the CharitÚ Hospital, Berlin, 1930-1933. He was a talented pianist and music competed with chemistry in his thoughts about a career. In 1933 Chain became one of the many refugees from Nazi Germany, finding refuge in Britain. From 1933 to 1935 he worked in Cambridge at the School of Biochemistry under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, moving in 1935 to the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, Oxford. Here he took part in the research and development of penicillin for which he shared with A. Fleming and H.W. Florey the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. In 1948 he moved to the Istituto Superiore di SanitÓ, Rome, Italy as Scientific Director of the International Research Centre for Chemical Microbiology, remaining there until 1964 when, after protracted negotiations, he took up the Chair of Biochemistry at Imperial College, London. He retired in 1973 but retained Research Fellowships until his death in 1979. He was elected FRS in 1949 and knighted in 1969.


Scope and content/abstract:

The papers are very extensive though there are some lacunae, probably attributable to Chain's many changes of workplace. The early biographical period is sparsely documented, there are sporadic gaps in the correspondence files, and there is no original documentation of the penicillin research at Oxford (although there are many historical accounts and much correspondence about the history of penicillin). The surviving biographical material provides documentation of the arrangements for Chain to live and work in Britain, later honours and awards and his musical interests, and family correspondence, photographs and press-cuttings. There are very substantial records of his later career at the Istituto Superiore di SanitÓ and Imperial College, London, including his continuing contributions to biochemical problems such as carbohydrate metabolism, ergot alkaloids, edible proteins and aeration studies. The Imperial College material also contains records of the creation, administration, finance and architectural design of the Biochemistry Department, and developments in the Department after Chain's statutory retirement in 1973. Additional information about Chain's research is available in the documentation of his very extensive consultancy agreements and collaborative work with industrial firms such as Astra, Beechams and Rank Hovis McDougall, and records relating to government, grant-giving and charitable bodies such as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research Campaign and Medical Research Council which contributed to the funding of his research. There is much material on Chain's lectures, addresses and broadcasts, and on his extensive travel on visits and conferences, which includes a substantial number of unpublished talks.

An exceptional feature of the Chain papers is the documentation of the large number of Israel and Jewish organisations with which he was associated, especially the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he was a governor for many years and had at one time considered taking up an appointment.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
English and in part in Russian, German, French and Italian.

System of arrangement:

By section as follows: A. Biographical and personal, B. Research at Cambridge and Oxford, C. Istituto Superiore di SanitÓ, D. Imperial College London, E. Societies and organisations, F. Industrial consultancies and collaborative research, G. Lectures, publications, addresses and broadcasts, H. Israel and Jewish organisations, J. Visits and conferences, K. General correspondence. List of publications. Index of correspondents.

Conditions governing access:

By appointment with the Archivist, and after completing a Reader's Undertaking.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Photocopies and photographic copies are supplied at the discretion of the Archivist; in the case of certain deposited collections, the permission of the owner may also be required. Please note that material may be unsuitable for photocopying on conservation grounds, and that photographs cannot be photocopied in any circumstances. Readers are restricted to 100 photocopies in twelve months.

Finding aids:

Catalogued by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, 1983 (Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Sir Ernst Boris Chain: CSAC catalogue no. 92/2/83, 439 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath). Detailed catalogue available at

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

These papers were placed in the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre (now Archives and Manuscripts following merger with Western Manuscripts) in 1983 by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre (now the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists); the CSAC had received them for cataloguing from Lady Chain, the widow of Sir Ernst Chain, 1979-1983 (CMAC accession no. 126).

Allied Materials

Related material:

In other repositories: Letters to Dorothy Hodgkin, 1945-1962, Oxford University: Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts (Reference: NCUACS 47/3/94); Correspondence with Hans Krebs, 1956-1975, Sheffield University Library (Reference: J 105-07); Letters to Sir Rudolph Peters, 1956-1969, Oxford University: Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts (Reference: CSAC85/3/82); Letters to Sir Robert Robinson, 1973-1974, Royal Society (Reference: ROR); Correspondence relating to Society for Protection of Science and Learning, 1933-1964, Oxford University: Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts (Reference: SPSL)

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Description based on that created by NCUACS, University of Bath, with amendments by Helen Wakely, Wellcome Library.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
August 2000

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