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Alexander Fleming & Penicillin

Sir Alexander Fleming / Medical Pioneers

  • Name  : Fleming
  • Born  : 1881
  • Died  : 1955
  • Category  : Medical Pioneers
  • Finest Moment : Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1945, INvention and discovery of Penicillin  

The discovery of the natural antibiotic penicillium notatum, to give its scientific name, stands out as a medical landmark as important as the introduction of two other life-savers anaesthesia and antiseptics. Its discovery was also as though taken straight out of a Hollywood classic script.

Fleming was brought up at Lochfield Farm, near Darvel, Ayrshire. He worked in London for five years as a shipping clerk before studying medicine, in which he quickly showed aptitude as a researcher. Good researchers are probably born, and not taught, and Fleming eventually spent all of his professional life at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington.

The dreadful scenes of the trenches and work in a World War I hospital led Fleming to look for means of keeping contaminated wounds clean. He was the first to use antityphoid vaccines in humans, and pioneered the use of salvarsan against syphilis. But it took a fortuitous current of air and a wandering spore of mould to start off the train of research which led to one of the biggest savers of life - Penicillin.

In the summer of 1928 a glass plate was waiting to be washed on Fleming's lab sink. The plate had been carrying a sample of septicaemia organism, which causes blood poisoning. But Fleming noticed that an area of the sample had been colonised and cleared, presumably by an airborne spore. He soon found that this spore had the ability to kill or inhibit a variety of nasties, including those which cause wound inflammations, pneumonia, meningitis, diptheria etc. A colleague in the same building, who specialised in moulds, also worked on penicillium in a different experiment, and he confirmed its identity. (A suspicious, science-trained mind might also suspect that the possibility of contamination through an open window or door might be higher because of this fact, but we digress.)

Fleming, carrying out further research, found that the derived substance under test, which he named penicillin, was both difficult to produce in large quantities and not very efficient in a clinical situation. He had other, important work to do, and was in particular disappointed with its efficacy regarding influenza, a huge killer immediately following the First World War, when it killed more than the war itself. He downgraded its importance in his mind, and it was left to other researchers, in particular Florey and Chain at Oxford, to pick up the research which finally demonstrated its usefulness.

Penicillin was soon under mass production in the U.S.A. Fleming, who received no financial reward for his discovery, was knighted in 1944, and deservedly, along with Florey and Chain, received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. His remains are buried in St Paul's Cathedral. But for his spotting the incredible accident on the glass plate and pursuing it, millions of lives would not have been saved by this 'magic bullet' known as penicillin.

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