by Stan Griffin

Penicillin was the first antibiotic, the first "wonder drug." By the end of World War II, it was widely available and had already saved millions of lives. Was its discovery a " ... pure chance ..." or " ... the greatest fortune ...?" Was it one of those " ... things (that) fall out of the air ..."? In other words, was this breakthrough just pure luck?

A modest Scottish physician and research biologist used those phrases when describing his role in the development of penicillin. Alexander Fleming's first public presentation of his newly-discovered "mold juice" received very little reaction from the British medical community. In less than 20 years, people all over the world were aware of it, due to the additional efforts of two other men: Howard Florey (an Australian) and Ernst Chain (a German). Together those three men were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Alexander Fleming was born on August 6, 1881 in Lochfield, Ayrshire, Scotland. A childhood accident in a school playground left him with a broken nose. For the rest of his life, he looked more like a battered prizefighter than a medical man.

At the age of 20 Fleming got a scholarship to attend St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London. After graduation in 1906, he was hired by Sir Almroth Wright at St. Mary's as a research bacteriologist.

Fleming was chosen for this job because he had "excelled academically" during his studies and so was eminently qualified in that regard. However, there was a second qualification: Fleming was an expert marksman and a member of St. Mary's rifle team. The team wanted him to stay on so he could help them win the Inter-Hospital Shooting Cup.

Dr. Wright was head of the Innoculation Department and a strong believer in vaccines. Fleming was convinced that there were other methods that hadn't yet been discovered to combat disease, and he was searching for them. Both men served in the British Army Medical Corps during World War I. Fleming studied the treatment of wounds and the high death rate from bacterial infection.

In the postwar period, Fleming continued his pursuit of alternate ways to fight disease. It was 1922 when he discovered a substance found in nasal mucus, tears, and even tissues. This "lysozyme" could dissolve certain microbes. However, it was not effective against the worst infections, so he kept looking.

Dr. Fleming could not be called a tidy man. His work area was usually cluttered with tubes, dishes, and other materials. Fleming would grow bacteria in special culture plates so that their growth could be studied. It was his habit to clean up every two or three weeks. Often there could be as many as 40 or 50 "cultures" from previous experiments on his desk at one time.

On a momentous day in 1928, Fleming was examining a number of dishes prior to performing his "housekeeping." In one dish he noticed a patch of "blue mold" (such as that found on spoiled food). The area immediately around this mold was clear of microbes. After some testing, Fleming concluded that the mold stopped the growth of that particular bacteria. He kept the mold alive and tested it on lab animals.

The following year Fleming published a medical paper stating that this mold could kill pathogenic microbes with high degrees of resistance, yet was non-toxic to animals. The mold was identified as "Penicillium notatum," and Fleming named the substance it discharged "penicillin."

St. Mary's had no biochemists on staff and lacked the chemical means to turn Fleming's discovery into a usable drug. At this point, Fleming's work with penicillin " ran out of steam," so he went on to other projects.

Two researchers at the Biochemical Department of Oxford University read the details of Fleming's discovery and went to work. Dr. Howard Florey (pathologist) and Dr. Ernst Chain (biochemist) conducted extensive tests; and in 1940 they published an account of their research. They had proven it was possible to make penicillin in pure form. Great Britain had just recently entered World War II. With the government and industry gearing up for war, they could not afford to undertake such a major project to produce penicillin in quantity, even though it would be an improvement on current medical techniques.

So in June, 1941, Florey came to the United States looking for help. He found two laboratories willing to produce large amounts of penicillin. The U. S. Department of Agriculture also took part in cultivating the mold on a large scale and then sending it to Britain.

By the next year, British drug companies began making enough penicillin for military use. It was used extensively during the remainder of the war, saving lives by the hundreds of thousands on battlefields around the world. The new drug was considered a military secret, and news of its effectiveness was not released officially until war's end.

Penicillin was able to treat most forms of meningitis and pneumonia. It is also a weapon against anthrax, diptheria, and rat-bite fever. Penicillin could cure 90 per cent of blood poisoning cases. It could also attack bacteria that made wounds and sores turn septic.

In July, 1944 King George VI of Great Britain knighted both Fleming and Florey.

The next year, the Swedish king awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Fleming, Florey, and Chain.

Alexander Fleming also received a number of additional honors. He appeared on the cover of "Time Magazine" in 1945. He was given 25 honorary degrees, 26 medals, 18 prizes, 13 decorations, and honorary membership in 89 academies and societies. He even had a crater on the moon named for him!

Fleming became a "globe-trotting celebrity" traveling all over Europe, visiting the U. S. five times, and " ... was received with respect and gratitude as far away as Brazil and Pakistan ..." From 1946 until his retirement, he found time to serve as head of St. Mary's Institute of Pathology and Director of the Innoculation Department. He retired in January, 1955.

Only a few months later, Alexander Fleming died suddenly from a massive heart attack. To honor him for his achievements, Fleming was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, " ... beside the greatest British heroes and statesmen ..."

It was happenstance that made Fleming a medical researcher, and perhaps chance was also responsible for his discovery of penicillin. However, " ... a less experienced, less knowledgeable scientist ... never would have known enough to preserve the (blue) mold ..." Undoubtedly, " ... the same phenomenon had been presented ... to other bacteriologists; but they were not interested ..." Obviously, more than luck was involved in this medical "giant step."

The British Medical Journal said this, in part, to sum up his achievement: " ...the world will acclaim a medical advance 'great' in proportion to the curative benefits it brings, and on this count alone Sir Alexander Fleming has his place among the immortals ..."

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