Alexander Fleming, Biologist

Alexander Fleming, Biologist

On September 15, 1928, Biologist, Alexander Fleming returned to his laboratory after a month away with his family, and noticed that a culture of Staphylococcus aureus he had left out had become contaminated with a mold (later identified as Penicillium notatum). He also discovered that the colonies of staphylococci surrounding this mold had been destroyed.

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He later said of the incident, “When I woke up just after dawn on September 15, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.” He at first called the substance “mold juice,” and then named it “penicillin,” after the mold that produced it.

SERENDIPITY Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin, produced by the mold Penicillium chrysogenum (shown here, also known as P. notatum).

SERENDIPITY Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin, produced by the mold Penicillium chrysogenum (shown here, also known as P. notatum).

Thinking he had found an enzyme more powerful than lysozyme, Fleming decided to investigate further. What he found out, though, was that it was not an enzyme at all, but an antibiotic — one of the first antibiotics to be discovered. Further development of the substance was not a one-man operation, as his previous efforts had been, so Fleming recruited two young researchers. The three men unfortunately failed to stabilize and purify penicillin, but Fleming pointed out that penicillin had clinical potential, both in topical and injectable forms, if it could be developed properly.

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.

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The antibiotic eventually came into use during World War II, revolutionizing battlefield medicine and, on a much broader scale, the field of infection control.

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Florey, Chain and Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, but their relationship was tainted over who should receive the most credit for penicillin. The press tended to emphasize Fleming’s role due to the compelling back-story of his chance discovery and his greater willingness to be interviewed.

The 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Sir Howard Florey for their discovery of penicillin, a fungus, and its use as an antibiotic.

The 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Sir Howard Florey for their discovery of penicillin, a fungus, and its use as an antibiotic.

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2 responses

  1. It’s amazing how many other accidental discoveries were made in the field of medicine and chemistry too.

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