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Archive of Sir Edward Penley Abraham


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Biographical series includes a variety of material reflecting many aspects of Abraham's personal and professional life. A number of his school notebooks survive, along with eighteen undergraduate notebooks. There are letters of congratulation on his election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, 1958, and on his receipt of the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1973, and correspondence and papers relating to other honours and awards. Included also are correspondence concerning the history of antibiotics (mostly 1990s), correspondence and papers relating to his support of various charities and appeals later in his life, appointments diaries (1963-1992), and a sequence of personal correspondence, 1974-1998.

University of Oxford series is short. The material includes correspondence and papers relating to the business of Lincoln College (1960-1996), of which Abraham was a Fellow, and building work and administration at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology (1954-1994). Other papers, chiefly concerning social and fundraising events, reflect his associations with other Oxford colleges and organisations, sometimes through donations by the Abraham Trusts.

Research series, presents extensive and diverse material spanning some sixty years of Abraham's biochemical research. There are notebooks, correspondence, publications and other papers, chiefly relating to research on cephalosporins and related substances by Abraham's team and other organisations. There are a few of his notebooks dating from his period at the Dyson Perrins Laboratory and his early years at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology; one survives from his year in Stockholm (1938/1939) as a Rockefeller Travelling Fellow. The early Dunn School notebooks include details of experiments on penicillin from 1940. There is significant coverage of the collaborative research with the Antibiotics Research Station of the Medical Research Council on the cephalosporium culture fluids in the 1950s, the work that led to the isolation of Cephalosporin C and the determination of its chemical structure. A large body of correspondence and papers relates to the involvement, through to the 1990s, of the National Research Development Corporation in the on-going research on the cephalosporin antibiotics and their commercial exploitation, the participation of licensed pharmaceutical companies such as Squibb, and legal cases concerning cephalosporin patents in which Abraham provided expert opinion. Experimental work by Abraham's team on a range antibiotics and related compounds, including Cephalosporin C, Bacilysin and B-lactamases, is documented by a large group of laboratory notebooks dating from 1946 to 1983. They are mostly the work of Abraham's research assistants, though a few are in his hand. A small body of correspondence and papers relates to research on bacilysin from 1957, and there is also some scientific correspondence of a more general nature.

Publications series comprises Abraham's drafts of scientific papers, book reviews and other articles, dating from 1956 to 1998, and editorial correspondence. Of particular interest are the drafts and correspondence relating to his Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society articles for Howard Florey (1971) and Ernst Chain (1983). The correspondence highlights the sensitive issues Abraham had to negotiate in the preparation and drafting of the Memoirs. There are also drafts of other obituaries he wrote for Florey and Chain.

Lectures and broadcasts series, principally comprises drafts and correspondence relating to public lectures given by Abraham from c.1960 to 1993. Most lectures are on the origin and development of B-lactam antibiotics; one given at the National Portrait Gallery in 1993 surveys the discoveries of Sir Alexander Fleming. A small amount of lecture material used by Abraham for teaching is included. The papers relating to broadcasts is slight, chiefly concerning Abraham's contributions to various television and radio programmes on penicillin, the cephalosporins and the work of Howard Florey, dating from 1962 to 1991.

Visits and conferences series covers the period 1955 to 1995. The material chiefly covers Abraham's participation in symposia and conferences on chemotherapy, antibiotics, and, in some cases, specifically B-lactam antibiotics. On longer stays abroad he sometimes combined attendance at symposia with lectures at universities and visits to pharmaceutical laboratories. Among the visits and conferences for which significant documentation survives are the International Congresses of Chemotherapy held in Vienna, 1967 and 1983; the Interscience Conferences on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy held in Chicago, 1967 and 1981; and a visit to India in January 1985, which included the Asian Congress of Pharmacology in New Delhi. Included are drafts of papers given by Abraham at symposia.

Societies and organisations series presents material covering Abraham's involvement in many British scientific organisations, including the Biochemical Society, the Chemical Society, the Society for General Microbiology, and the Royal Society. Overseas organisations are represented by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences and the Australian National University (John Curtin School of Medical Research). Much of the correspondence in this section is general in nature, though there is material relating to lectures and addresses given by Abraham, such as the 5th L.P. Garrod Lecture for the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy in 1986.

Correspondence series principally consists of scientific correspondence, 1944-1998, arranged by individual or country. The correspondents include some colleagues of Abraham, such as Norman Heatley, Henry Harris, and Guy Newton, research assistants and workers in Abraham's laboratory, and scientists in other institutions. The correspondence arranged by country reflects Abraham's strong interest in antibiotics research overseas, and documents visits to many countries for participation in conferences and meetings. There is also a short sequence of material concerning references and recommendations.

Non-text material series largely consists of photographs of Abraham, with a few of colleagues such as Guy Newton, dating from 1930-1995. Included are school photographs, portraits from Abraham's early career, and several showing him with colleagues and fellow scientists taken at conferences or functions. There are also a few lecture slides and videotapes, one recording an event at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, at which Abraham spoke, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the published paper on the therapeutic application of penicillin.


  • Creation: 1925-2000


28.65 Linear metres (191 physical shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

  • English

Conditions Governing Access

Some material is closed.

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark and folio or page reference, e.g. MS. Abraham 1, folder A.7].

Please see our help page for further guidance on citing archives and manuscripts.

Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. Abraham 1-191 (Former reference: NCUACS 103/2/02/A.1 - NCUACS 103/2/02/J.43)

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 6778


Correspondence and papers of Sir Edward Penley Abraham FRS, (1913-1999), biochemist.

Biographical / Historical

Edward Penley Abraham was born at Southampton on 10 June 1913 and educated at the King Edward VI School. He won an exhibition to Queen's College Oxford, taking a First in chemistry and acquiring a particular interest in organic chemistry. At the Dyson Perrins Laboratory in Oxford he undertook research on peptides and studied for a D.Phil. under Robert Robinson. His work included an important contribution to the study of lysozyme which was also being investigated by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology. After taking his doctorate in 1938, Abraham was able to develop his increasing interest in biochemistry at the Biokemiska Institut, Stockholm, which he attended as a Rockefeller Travelling Fellow. He returned to England the following year and in January 1940 took up a post at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Florey's invitation.

During their investigations of naturally occurring antibiotic substances, Florey and Chain had turned their attention to penicillin in 1938. After experiments on mice in the summer of 1940 yielded encouraging results, Abraham joined the work on the purification and chemistry of penicillin. In the course of this research he and Chain observed that the antibiotic was destroyed by an enzyme produced in a strain of E-coli. The discovery of this enzyme, named penicillinase, proved to be of great importance to future studies of micro-organisms and antibiotic resistance. Following the first successful clinical trial of penicillin on humans in February 1941, Abraham played a significant role in the elucidation of its chemical structure and in 1943, with Chain, proposed the novel B-lactam structure with a fused two ring system. This theory was strongly opposed by Abraham's former supervisor, Robinson, who favoured an alternative structure. The issue was settled in 1945 when X-ray crystallographic study by Dorothy Hodgkin and Barbara Low confirmed the B-lactam structure.

Although the astonishing clinical impact of penicillin would overshadow all subsequent breakthroughs in antibiotics, the discovery of Cephalosporin C by Abraham and Guy Newton led to the appearance of a new group of B-lactam antibiotics of equal importance to medicine and of greater commercial value. A culture of the cephalosporium fungus, whose antibiotic properties were first discovered in Sardinia by Giuseppe Brötzu in 1945, reached the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in September 1948. After initial experiments by N.G. Heatley, the production of culture fluids was turned over to the Medical Research Council's Antibiotics Research Station at Clevedon in July 1949. Abraham and his colleagues succeeded in isolating a number of antibiotic substances from the culture fluids, the one producing the results originally observed by Brötzu given the name 'Cephalosporin N'. The discovery of Cephalosporin C, a substance detected in minute quantities in partially purified Cephalosporin N in September 1953, was epoch making. It was active against certain bacteria unaffected by penicillin, while being resistant to penicillinase and of very low toxicity. Cephalosporin N was shown to be a new form of penicillin and was re-named 'Penicillin N'.

Despite the combined efforts of Oxford, Clevedon, and the Glaxo Group there proved to be many difficulties with the production of Cephalosporin C by fermentation and it took until 1959 for Abraham and Newton to determine its chemical structure. Later that year they showed that subtle mutations of the Cephalosporin C molecule could lead to the production of more potent antibiotics which would still be resistant to penicillinase. Work aimed at producing higher yields of the nucleus of the molecule (7-aminocephalosporanic acid or 7-ACA) continued during the early 1960s, with Glaxo and other pharmaceutical laboratories licensed by the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) collaborating with the Dunn School. The successful outcome of this painstaking work enabled studies of semi-synthetic cephalosporins to proceed, with the drugs cephalothin and cephaloridine being introduced into medicine in 1964. The NRDC's worldwide patenting and licensing scheme covering the cephalosporins eventually yielded huge royalties, for many years the chief source of income for the corporation. Abraham diverted the greater part of his royalty income into two trusts, the E.P. Abraham Research Fund and the E.P.A. Cephalosporin Fund, which he set up to support medical, biological and chemical research, especially at Oxford.

After 1964 Abraham continued to conduct research on B-lactam antibiotics, including the biosynthesis and enzyme inactivation of penicillins and cepahlosporins, while also investigating other antibiotics such as bacilysin. He maintained a strong interest in antibiotics research abroad, and travelled extensively to visit research laboratories and give lectures such as the Rennebohm Lecture at the University of Wisconsin (1966-1967) and the Squibb Lecture at Rutgers University (1972).

Abraham was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1958 and became Professor of Chemical Pathology in 1964. In addition to his knighthood in 1980, his outstanding contributions in the antibiotics field brought him numerous awards, including the Royal Medal of the Royal Society (1973), a CBE (1973), the Mullard Prize of the Royal Society (1980), and several honorary degrees. Abraham also contributed to academic life in Oxford as a Fellow of Lincoln College from 1948 to 1980 (an Honorary Fellow from 1980) and as an Honorary Fellow of a number of other colleges.

A man of exceptional modesty, Abraham was affectionately regarded by his colleagues at all levels. He remained on good terms with both Florey and Chain after their acrimonious breach and later wrote well-received articles on both scientists for Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society.

He married Absbjörg Harung, a Norwegian, in 1939 and they had a son. Abraham died on 8 May 1999.


The archive is arranged in the following series:

  1. Biographical (MSS. Abraham 1-7)
  2. University of Oxford (MSS. Abraham 8-13)
  3. Research (MSS. Abraham 14-116)
  4. Publications (MSS. Abraham 117-133)
  5. Lectures and broadcasts (MSS. Abraham 134-138)
  6. Visits and conferences (MSS. Abraham 139-145)
  7. Societies and organisations (MSS. Abraham 146-152)
  8. Correspondence (MSS. Abraham 153-188)
  9. Non-text material (MSS. Abraham 189-191)

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were received from the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, with additional biographical material from Mrs. T. Mayes, Sir Edward Abraham's niece, in the summer of 2000.

Catalogue of the archive of Sir Edward Penley Abraham FRS, (1913-1999), biochemist
Finding aid prepared by Original catalogue by Simon Coleman and Peter Harper; EAD version by Lawrence Mielniczuk
EAD version 2018
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom