The invention of penicillin is, quite possibly, the most famous accidental invention of all time. It has been a story told and learned by schoolchildren for generations although, just in case you missed it, we shall repeat it here.
Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) was a British botanist, pharmacologist and biologist who worked at a London shipping office for four years until an inheritance from an uncle enabled him to enrol, in 1903, at the St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington. At the age of twenty-one Fleming had no particular interest in science or medicine although his elder brother was already a physician and strongly urged his younger sibling to use the money wisely and study for a professional career. Fleming earned his degree in 1906 and graduated with distinction.
During medical school Fleming had been a leading member of the shooting team of St Mary’s and the club captain, eager to keep him on the team, recommended him to the research department at St Mary’s. There, he became the assistant to Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in the field of immunology and vaccine research. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Fleming joined the Army and served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corp. During this time the world read stories of soldiers from all sides becoming victims of the new automatic machine guns, explosive artillery fire and mustard gas.
But the young field doctor began to notice something far more dangerous than modern weapons of war. Fleming realized that most fatalities were caused by infection from minor wounds that were being treated in field hospitals all along the western front. At that time the primary prescription for open wounds was a liberal supply of cheap antiseptic and it became obvious to Fleming that this was possibly more dangerous than applying no treatment at all. He was unwilling to accept the inefficiency of modern medicine and vowed to dedicate his career to identifying, understanding and fighting infections. He was particularly motivated to find a safer treatment to what he considered to be ‘deadly’ antiseptic. After the war he returned to St Mary’s Hospital and, with Sir Almroth Wright’s encouragement, he studied antiseptics and their unintended effects, making a major discovery in 1923 when he identified the enzyme lysozyme in human mucus. Fleming observed how this naturally occurring agent protected the human immune system from certain bacteria.
By 1928 Alexander Fleming was leading a research team in a study of common bacteria that was spreading disease through urban areas. As Professor of Bacteriology at University of London, Fleming could have been expected to set an example but, in fact, it was his untidiness that would change the world of medicine, modernize the human effort against disease and save millions of lives. In August that year, the Professor went on holiday with his family and, before he left, stacked all his equipment, including Petri dishes, into a corner of his untidy laboratory. On 3 September, Fleming famously returned from his holiday and, as he was setting out his equipment, noticed he had failed to clean them properly before he left. As a result of this he observed that one of his samples was contaminated with a fungus and that the bacteria immediately around it had been destroyed. He was about to throw it away when he showed it to his former assistant, Merlin Price, who reminded him, ‘this is how you discovered lysozyme’. Over the following weeks Fleming began to experiment with the mould and discovered he could easily produce a substance that naturally killed any number of harmful bacteria, many of which caused disease. Fleming later recalled: ‘When I woke up just after dawn on 28 September, 1928, I certainly did not plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But, I suppose, that’s exactly what I did do.’
Fleming identified his discovery as part of the penicillium genus and, after many months of calling it mould juice, released a paper describing ‘penicillin’ on 7 March 1929. Two other scientists, a Nazi refugee called Ernst Chain (1906–79) and Australian Howard Florey (1898–1968), developed Fleming’s penicillin further so that it could be produced as a drug, which was immediately effective, although supplies remained limited and expensive. They would have to wait until 1940 and the start of the Second World War before American drugs companies began to mass-produce penicillin. Alexander Fleming became internationally famous for his accidental discovery, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1943, knighted for his services to medicine in 1944 and, in 1945, shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine with Florey and Chain. The laboratory where he made his life-changing discovery is preserved as the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London.
There is a great story of the connection between Alexander Fleming and Britain’s gritty wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, which, for the record, I don’t believe is true. But it is still a good story and goes something like this.
Hugh Fleming (1816–88) was a poor Scottish croft farmer, working the land to provide his young family with food and clothing in the first instance, but dreaming of providing them with a better future and a better life than he himself had endured. One morning the farmer heard cries for help coming from a nearby field and he dropped his tools and ran in the direction of the voice. There, waist deep in a murky Scottish bog, was a terrified boy trapped and sinking into the ground. Regardless of his own safety Fleming went straight in and pulled the boy from danger, saving him from certain death.
The following day a grand carriage drew up at the modest croft cottage and a noble lord stepped out to greet the farmer. He introduced himself as the father of the boy Fleming had saved and insisted he wanted to reward the farmer to show his sincere gratitude. But Fleming refused, declaring he had only done what anyone else would have done in the same circumstances. At that point the farmer’s own son joined his father. ‘Is this your boy?’ asked the nobleman, and Fleming proudly agreed that it was. ‘In which case I will make you a promise,’ said the lord. ‘I will take the boy and pay for the best education money can buy. If he is anything like his father he will grow into a man we will both be proud of.’
Seeing a chance for his son to escape a life of poverty, the farmer agreed and the boy then benefited from the finest education, eventually graduating from St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. He was later knighted for his contribution to medicine and became known as Sir Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin. Some years later the nobleman’s own son became seriously ill with pneumonia and it was the crofter’s son’s penicillin that saved his life, truly repaying Lord Randolph Churchill’s benevolence. His son, the boy dragged from the bog and whose life was saved for a second time by the Fleming family, was Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister.
It is a common enough tale and has been circulating for many years. Unfortunately it seems it is untrue, with Fleming himself, quoted in the book Penicillin Man – Alexander Fleming and the Antibiotic Revolution, dismissing the story as ‘a wonderful fable’. It is known that Churchill consulted with Sir Alexander Fleming on 27 June 1946 about a staphylococcal infection, which had apparently resisted treatment by penicillin. However, there is no record of a young Churchill nearly drowning in Scotland or of Lord Randolph Churchill paying for Fleming’s education.
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