Inventor of the Week Archive
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No scientific story illustrates the power of luck coupled
with ingenuity quite like the tale of the discovery of penicillin.
The scientist credited with the invention of this groundbreaking
drug, Alexander Fleming, was born on August 6, 1881 in Ayrshire,
Scotland. A bright student, Fleming worked in a shipping office
for several years before returning to school to pursue a degree
in medicine. He earned his M.D., with honors, from St. Mary's
Medical School in London in 1908. He then worked for Almroth
Wright's research team there where he developed a strong interest
Fleming became a lecturer at St. Mary's, staying on until
1914, when he left to serve as a captain in the Army Medical
Corps. During this experience he realized that more needed
to be done to save soldiers who suffered infections from their
wounds. His interest in bacteriology deepened. In 1918, he
returned to St. Mary's, where he continued to conduct research
in the bacterial action of the blood, mucus and other body
fluids, searching for antibacterial substances that were non-toxic
to animal tissues. He discovered, in 1921, the bacteriolytic
substance he named lysozyme found in tears and other bodily
secretions, but this substance was not particularly strong.
In 1928, Fleming left his lab for a two-week vacation and
his failure to clean up his workspace resulted in one of the
greatest medical discoveries of all time. He returned to the
lab to find that a mold had accidentally developed on a staphylococcus
culture plate he had left out in the open. On the plate, a
bacteria-free circle surrounded the yellow-green mold. This
intrigued Fleming. He deduced that the mold must have released
some substance that had inhibited the growth of the bacteria.
He conducted experiments on the specimen, and found that the
mold culture prevented growth of staphylococci, even when
diluted 800 times. The mold, he discovered, had been created
by a spore of a rare variant called Penicillium notatum, which
had likely drifted up from a mycology lab on another floor.
Fleming named this mold substance "penicillin"
and reported his findings in 1929 in the British Journal of
Experimental Pathology. However, his work would remain obscure
for nearly a decade.
In 1939, a team of scientists at Oxford University led by
Australian physiologist Howard Florey began working to identify
and isolate substances from molds that could kill bacteria.
Among the substances they studied was Fleming's penicillin.
They were able to purify the substance and use it in experiments
to treat mice who had been given lethal doses of bacteria.
The experiments were overwhelmingly successful. Penicillin
rapidly became a mainstream medical treatment for a variety
of infections, such as syphilis, scarlet fever, diphtheria,
and pneumonia. British and American drug companies began to
manufacture the drug in large quantities, and by the end of
World War II, it had saved millions of lives.
Fleming was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1943, and was knighted in 1944. Along with Florey and chemist, Ernst Boris Chain, Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. Fleming was named Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology, University of London, in 1948. He was Rector of Edinburgh University
from 1951 to 1954. Fleming died on March 11, 1955 and is buried
in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.