The discovery of penicillin
It was the discovery that saved millions and sent many a disease into a retreat. Tonsillitis, gonorrhoea, scarlet fever, and pneumonia were among its victims. Penicillin, the world’s first manufactured antibiotic, was Sir Alexander Fleming ’s accidental moment of genius, earning him and chemists Ernst Chain and Howard Florey the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. It ushered in a new era for medicine.
Fleming had already forged a formidable career by the time he stumbled across penicillium’s antibiotic properties. Born in Darvel, Ayrshire , Fleming was educated at Saint Mary’s hospital, London, in 1906. As a young doctor he was seduced into research bacteriology. Taking the position as assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright at Saint Mary’s would set him on the path to greatness. Wright had already proved himself a trailblazer of vaccine and immunology – though he himself could scarcely had predicted the heights to which Fleming would soar.
After serving in the medical corp during the First World War , Fleming was back in Saint Mary’s, ensconced in the laboratory – which, by all accounts, was maintained in a state of clutter, if not outright disorder. By 1928, he was elected Professor Of Biology; his reputation was growing, lauded among his students, soon the world would acclaim him.
Fleming’s sphere of study concerned antiseptics, and all things antibacterial. Witnessing many young men losing their lives to septicemia on the Western Front in France drove Fleming on. He had already written off antiseptics as nothing more than a topical treatment, proving that they could not reverse the course of infection in the body. Furthermore, antiseptics were proved to be detrimental to the body’s health if used to treat deep, infected wounds, inhibiting the body’s own bacterial defense mechanisms.
The discovery of lysozyme, an enzyme the body produces to combat infection, put Fleming on the right direction, but when the time came, penicillin revealed itself in the most accidental fashion. It was in an almost discarded sample that Fleming noticed that mould, ringed by an area free of staphylococci, was the antibiotic agent he had been searching for. His Eureka moment was tempered by the difficulties in refining the mould into a stable drug that could be administered on a larger scale. Fleming lost faith in penicillin; finding a chemist to cultivate it difficult enough, and its therapeutical benefits were marginalised by its perishability and slow reaction time. Enter Ernst Chain and Howard Florey, whose stewardship of the biomechanical research facility at Oxford saw the project through to its conclusion.
A decade after Fleming’s discovery, penicillin was still some distance from being produced on an industrial scale. Chain’s first breakthrough was in isolating, refining and understanding the molecular structure of penicillin. By the 1940s, soldiers injured in the Second World War were being treated with the first mass-produced antibiotics. Fleming was knighted in 1944, and died in 1955 of a heart attack.
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