Ernst Boris Chain was born on June 19, 1906, in Berlin, Germany. In 1930, he obtained his chemistry degree from Friedrich Wilhelm University. Following graduation, Chain spent three years working on enzyme research at the Charité Hospital. After the Nazis came to power, Chain left Germany for England in 1933, because he was a Jew.
He began working on phospholipids (a major component of all major biological membranes) at Cambridge University 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, tumor metabolism, lysozymes, and biochemistry techniques.
In 1939, he partnered with 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 previously. Chain and Florey went on to discover penicillin's theraputic action and its chemical composition. It was Chain who worked out how to isolate and concentrate penicillin. He also theorized the structure of penicillin, which was confirmed by x-ray crystallography done by Dorothy Hodgkin.
After World War II, Chain moved to Rome, to work at the Istituto Superiore di Sanita (Superior Institute of Health). There he was appointed Scientific Director of the International Research Centre for Chemical Microbiology. He returned to Britain in 1961 as Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College, University of London.
In 1945, Chain received the Nobel Prize for Medicine, along with Florey and Fleming, for their work on penicillin. In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize, he was awarded the Silver Berzelius Medal of the Swedish Medical Society (1946) and the Paul Ehrlich Centenary Prize (1954). In 1949, he was elected Foreign Member of the Royal Society in London. Chain was also member of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovoth, Israel.
Chain died on August 12, 1979.