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Penicillin : An improbable chain of coincidences led to one of the great medical revolutions just when it was most needed.

Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) discovered the principle underlying antibiotics, a genuine medical revolution, and it all happened by accident. But whereas the excitable Archimedes cried ‘Eureka!’ on making his famous discovery, Scotsman Fleming muttered a more British ‘That’s funny’.

EARLY on Friday, September 28, 1928, Alexander Fleming walked into his laboratory in St Mary’s Hospital, London, and noticed an open Petri dish with a culture of staphylococcus lying in it.

A nearby open window had let mould spores blow into the lab, and where these had settled in the dish the bacterial culture would not grow.

That mould battled infections had been known for centuries, and Sir John Burdon-Sanderson, a predecessor of Fleming’s, had encouraged Joseph Lister and others to study the matter in the 1870s.

But Fleming identified, for the first time, the anti-bacterial substance at work, which he named ‘penicillin’.

Fleming did not have the skills required to mass-produce penicillin for medicinal use, and there things might have ended but for Howard Florey at Lincoln College, Oxford.

By D-Day in 1944, his team had manufactured enough penicillin to treat all the wounded, and the following year Florey and his colleague Ernst Chain shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Alexander Fleming.*

* Norman Heatley, who worked out how to extract penicillin efficiently, was not recognised for many years; but without him penicillin would never have been stable or capable of mass-production.

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Read more in the Guardian’s review of Eric Lax’s book The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat: the Remarkable True Story of Penicillin.

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Picture: © Erlend Schei, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0. View original
Flight of fancy... As luck would have it, penicillin was discovered after the wind blew spores of the mould ‘penicilium notatum’ into a Petri dish in St Mary’s Hospital, London.

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