Fleming Discovers Penicillin

Had Sir Alexander Fleming’s mom raised a tidier son, who knows how many people would have died needlessly of infectious diseases?

As it was, during the early years of the 20th Century, hundreds of thousands did die needlessly, a number that grew exponentially during World War I, when more soldiers died from bacterial infections caused by their wounds than they did by the wounds themselves — something Fleming, a young doctor working in battlefield hospitals during the war, saw firsthand.  And so, after the war ended, Dr. Fleming returned to St. Mary’s hospital in London to search for a cure for bacterial infections.

His first breakthrough was the discovery of the antibacterial agent lysozyme, an enzyme found in many bodily fluids, including tears.  However, lysozyme was ineffective against serious infections such as those caused from war wounds, so Fleming kept looking.

His research took him down many paths, which meant many experiments using Petri dishes to grow bacterial agents.  And as is often the case with dedicated researchers, Fleming did not always have the time or inclination to perform the mundane task of cleaning those dishes, meaning they would often pile up in the sink, to be washed when he got around to it. But one day when he began cleaning up a pile of Petri dishes that had collected on a bench, he noticed a mold had grown on one of the dishes.  This was, of course, a not uncommon byproduct of leaving dirty dishes around for too long, but what Fleming considered very uncommon was the fact that all of the staph bacteria surrounding this mold had died.  Further experimenting, he eventually determined that the mold was Penicillum notatum, and that it prevented the growth of staphylococci (bacteria).  Fleming also found that this penicillin, as he finally named it, was particularly effective at preventing bacteria in wounds, and was almost completely harmless to the human body.

It was the medical breakthrough of the age, yet when Fleming published his findings this week (Feb. 14) in 1929, it attracted very little notice until two chemists working on antibacterial chemicals at Oxford University in the 1930s read Fleming’s paper and took his findings one step further, finally injecting penicillin into live mice, and later into selected human subjects.  Their experiments were an unqualified success, which by 1943 — with a world war once again raging in Europe — led to the mass production of penicillin and the saving of countless thousands of lives.

Sir Alexander Fleming — he was knighted in 1944 — died in 1955, having never been awarded the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the cleanliness of his laboratory.  But he did manage to collect the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945.