Penicillin: A Boxego Moment in History - 15th September 1928

Sep 15, 2013

A Boxego Timeline journal entry...

Sir Alexander Fleming was a Scottish biologist, pharmacologist and botanist. He wrote many articles on bacteriology, immunology, and chemotherapy. His best-known discoveries are the enzyme lysozyme in 1923 and the antibiotic substance penicillin from the mould Penicillium notatum in 1928, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain.


In 1999, Time magazine named Fleming one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating of his discovery of penicillin that: “It was a discovery that would change the course of history.”

Fleming was born on 6 August 1881 in Ayrshire, Scotland. After working in a shipping office for four years, the twenty-year-old Fleming inherited some money from an uncle and at the suggestion of his older brother John Fleming, he enrolled at St Mary's Hospital Medical School in Paddington from where he received his Degree in Medicine.

Fleming had planned to become a surgeon, but a temporary position in the Inoculation Department at St. Mary's Hospital changed his path toward the then-new field of bacteriology. There, he developed his research skills under the guidance of bacteriologist and immunologist Sir Almroth Edward Wright, whose revolutionary ideas of vaccine therapy represented an entirely new direction in medical treatment.

Fleming served throughout World War I as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was Mentioned in Dispatches. He and many of his colleagues worked in battlefield hospitals at the Western Front in France.

During World War I, Fleming served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He worked as a bacteriologist, studying wound infections in a makeshift lab that had been set up by Wright in Boulogne, France. Through his research there, Fleming discovered that antiseptics commonly used at the time were doing more harm than good, as their diminishing effects on the body's immunity agents largely outweighed their ability to break down harmful bacteria - therefore, more soldiers were dying from antiseptic treatment than from the infections they were trying to destroy. Fleming recommended that, for more effective healing, wounds simply be kept dry and clean. However, his recommendations largely went unheeded.

In 1918 he returned to St Mary's Hospital, where he was elected Professor of Bacteriology of the University of London in 1928. It was while working there that he “accidently” discovered Penicillin.

Fleming had a reputation as a brilliant researcher, but his laboratory was often untidy. On 3 September 1928, he returned to his laboratory having spent August on holiday with his family. Before leaving, he had stacked all his petri dishes containing cultures of the bacteria staphylococci that he had been researching on a bench in a corner of his laboratory. On returning, he noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus, and that the colonies of staphylococci that had immediately surrounded it had been destroyed, whereas other colonies farther away were normal.


 "When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer," Fleming said, "But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”

On the heels of Fleming's discovery, a team of scientists from the University of Oxford -- led by Howard Florey and his co-worker, Ernst Chain -- isolated and purified penicillin. The antibiotic eventually came into use during World War II, revolutionizing battlefield medicine and, on a much broader scale, the field of infection control.

In 1945, Florey, Chain and Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

For many years there was a rather charming story told about Fleming. It goes something like this…

“There was once a poor Scottish farmer by the name of Fleming. One day, while trying to eke out a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black mulch, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.

The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman's sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved. "I want to repay you," said the nobleman. "You saved my son's life."

"No, I can't accept payment for what I did," the Scottish farmer replied, waving off the offer. At that moment, the farmer's own son came to the door of the family hovel. "Is that your son?" the nobleman asked. "Yes," the farmer replied proudly.

"I'll make you a deal. Let me take him and give him a good education. If the lad is anything like his father, he'll grow to a man you can be proud of."

And that he did. In time, Farmer Fleming's son graduated from St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

Years afterward, the nobleman's son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved him? Penicillin.

The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son's name? Sir Winston Churchill.”

It is however, just a charming story.

An urban myth.


Category: History