Alexander Fleming Accidentally Discovers Penicillin

Alexander Fleming Was born on August 6, 1881 in Ayrshire, Scotland. After completing his basic studies, he moved to London, where he attended the Royal Polytechnic Institution. After working in a shipping office for four years, the twenty-year-old Fleming inherited some money from an uncle, and decided to become a doctor like his older brother Thomas. So in 1903, he enrolled at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington, later graduating with distinction with an MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 1906.

Fleming had served as a private in the London Scottish Regiment of the Volunteer Force in 1900, and had been a member of the rifle club at the medical school. The captain of the club, wishing to retain Fleming in the team, suggested that he join the research department at St Mary’s, where he became the assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy and immunology. In 1908, he achieved a Bachelor of Science degree with Gold Medal in Bacteriology, and became a lecturer at St Mary’s until WWI began, whereupon he took up a position as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He and many of his colleagues worked in battlefield hospitals at the Western Front in France, and Fleming witnessed many soldiers dying of sepsis from infected wounds. Antiseptics, which were used at the time to treat infected wounds, often worsened the injuries, and Fleming wondered why. After some experimentation, he was able to explain why antiseptics were killing more soldiers than the infection itself.

Antiseptics worked well on the surface, but deep wounds tended to shelter anaerobic bacteria from the antiseptic agent, and antiseptics also seemed to remove beneficial agents that protected the patients at least as well as they removed bacteria, and further, did nothing to remove the bacteria that were out of reach. Sir Almroth Wright strongly supported Fleming’s findings, but despite this, most army physicians over the course of the war continued to use antiseptics even in cases where this worsened the condition of the patients.

At St Mary’s Hospital after the war, Fleming continued his investigations into antibacterial substances. Testing the nasal secretions from a patient with a heavy cold, he found that nasal mucus had an inhibitory effect on bacterial growth. This was the first recorded discovery of lysozyme, an enzyme present in many secretions including tears, saliva, skin, hair and nails as well as mucus. Although he was able to obtain larger amounts of lysozyme from egg whites, the enzyme was only effective against small counts of harmless bacteria, and therefore had little therapeutic potential.

By 1928, Fleming, now Professor of Bacteriology of the University of London, was investigating the properties of staphylococci. He was already well-known from his earlier work, and had developed a reputation as a brilliant researcher, but his laboratory was often untidy. On 3 September 1928, Fleming returned to his laboratory having spent August on holiday with his family. Before leaving, he had stacked all his cultures of staphylococci on a bench in a corner of his laboratory. On returning, Fleming noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus, and that the colonies of staphylococci immediately surrounding the fungus had been destroyed, whereas other staphylococci colonies farther away were normal. Fleming continued his experiments. He grew the mold in a pure culture and found that it produced a substance that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. He identified the mould as being from the Penicillium genus, and, after some months of calling it “mold juice”, named the substance penicillin.

He investigated its positive anti-bacterial effect on many organisms, and noticed that it affected bacteria such as staphylococci and many other pathogens that cause scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis and diphtheria, and, perhaps most important to armies everywhere, it proved to be effective against both syphilis and gonorrhea.

Fleming published his discovery in 1929, but little attention was paid to his article. He continued his investigations, but found that cultivating penicillium was quite difficult, and that after having grown the mould, it was even more difficult to isolate the antibiotic agent. Fleming’s impression was that because of the problem of producing it in quantity, and because its action appeared to be rather slow, penicillin would not be important in treating infection. Fleming also became convinced that penicillin would not last long enough in the human body to kill bacteria effectively. Many clinical tests were inconclusive, probably because it had been used as a surface antiseptic. In the 1930s, Fleming’s trials occasionally showed more promise, and he continued, until 1940, to try to interest a chemist skilled enough to further refine usable penicillin. Fleming finally abandoned penicillin, and not long after he did, two scientists at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford took up researching and mass-producing it, with funds from the U.S. and British governments. They started mass production after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and by D-Day in 1944, enough penicillin had been produced to treat all the wounded in the Allied forces.

Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945. He died at the age of 73 in 1955.

Modern antibiotics are tested using a method similar to Fleming’s discovery.

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