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Discovering Penicillin: Alexander Fleming

It was no accident that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin , the antibiotic that made it possible to save millions of lives. Before his findings, he had spent ten years searching for a substance that would have the effects of penicillin. By the time he encountered the pathway to penicillin, he was already equipped with the knowledge to identify it.

The Early Years

Alexander Fleming came from a large family that lived on a farm in Scotland. He went to local school before taking a position at a shipping office. In 1901, the 20-year-old man inherited money from an uncle and decided he would take the lead of his older brother and study medicine. He was interested in becoming a doctor, but wound up joining St Mary’s Hospital research department in 1906. He worked under Sir Almroth Wright as a bacteriologist. Fleming continued to earn degrees and started lecturing at the teaching hospital.

In the Army

Fleming served in the Army Medical Corps on the Western Front during World War I. While at the field hospitals, he noticed that many wounded soldiers were dying of septicemia even thought antiseptics were being used during procedures. His combined medical skills, research experience, and bacteriological training would prove highly valuable in conducting experiments to show that antiseptics actually caused more harm than good when used on deep wounds. The chemicals were not reaching the deepest bacteria and instead, destroyed some of the body’s own defenses. This made the soldiers susceptible to gangrene. Fleming suggested that antiseptic use be reduced and removing dead tissue from wounds would cut down on deaths.

Bacteria Research and Experiments

When Fleming returned to St. Mary’s Hospital, he continued to research substances that could kill bacteria without damaging the defenses of the human body. In 1921, he learned that nasal mucus, tears, and egg whites all contained such a substance that could dissolve the cell walls of bacteria. This enzyme was called lysozyme. Fleming went on to prove that there was a chemical process involved with lysozyme that could prove helpful in controlling bacteria.

Professor of Bacteriology

In 1928, Fleming was elected Professor of Bacteriology , the same year he experienced a major milestone. Fleming’s laboratory was cluttered and unkempt. Several culture dishes containing Staphylococcus bacteria were stacked up on a bench as he vacationed during the summer. When he returned, he noticed that a mold was growing on one of the dishes and that the strain of bacteria had been killed in a circle around it. Fleming called the mold Penicillium notatum. He later named the substance with antibacterial powers , penicillin.

Fleming continued to experiment with the substance and while he found it effective, he saw that it soon lost its potency. He discovered that it could not be injected without being purified and concentrated. Since he was not well versed in chemistry, he asked for help in the matter. Using a freeze-drying technique, Fleming teamed up with pathologist Howard Florey and chemist Ernst Chain to produce pure penicillin.

In the end, the US pharmaceutical companies awarded Fleming $100,000 for his contribution to medicine. The bacteriologist donated the money to St. Mary’s research department. Today, his discovery is the most widely used antibiotic in the world.