A Happy Accident: Fleming’s Penicillin

Ear ache? Sore throat? Tooth ache? If you’re suffering these symptoms, it’s possible you’d benefit from a dose of penicillin. And if that’s the case, you should be raising a glass to Sir Alexander Fleming who discovered the popular antibiotic. He was born on this day, 6 August, in 1881 in the small town of Darvel, Scotland.

Sir Alexander FlemingSir Alexander Fleming, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London(CC BY-NC)

Penicillin is a naturally occurring substance, which is why we credit Fleming with discovering rather than inventing it. And to be absolutely correct, he re-discovered it three decades after a French medical student first made note of it. And, what’s more, the discovery came after Fleming left a petri dish out in the lab by accident!

Penicillin mould, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London Penicillin mould, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London (CC BY-ND-NC)

In 1928, Fleming noticed that a blue-green mould had contaminated another specimen in the lab (the unwashed petri dish) and that bacteria on the dish were being dissolved.  He experimented with the mould and found that it killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. He named it penicillin and published his findings in 1929. You can read the first page of his important paper on Europeana.

First page of Alexander Fleming's paper on penicillin, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, LondonFirst page of Alexander Fleming’s paper on penicillin, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London (CC BY-NC)

Despite this great discovery, penicillin wasn’t widely used straightaway.  After undergoing clinical trials in 1943, it was first used on a large scale during World War Two to treat soldiers wounded on D-Day. It wasn’t until 1948 that Andrew J Moyer, one of the scientists responsible for this progress, was granted a patent for a method for penicillin mass production.

Needless to say, the significance of penicillin was soon recognised. In 1945, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey, “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases”.

Early production of penicillin wasn’t exactly what we would call hi-tech – check out this photo of some equipment used. Yes, they’re old milk churns!

Equipment used for making early forms of penicillin, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, LondonEquipment used for making early forms of penicillin, courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London (CC BY-NC)

As is its way, nature always fights back, and only four years after drug companies began mass-producing penicillin, microbes that were resistant to it began appearing. Because of this growing resistance, penicillin is now less useful than it once was. Scientists continue to modify it and other antibiotics to try to keep one step ahead of the bugs and to keep us healthy.

Other discoveries thought to have come about by accident include: brandy – a side-effect of using distillation to make wine easier to transport; Teflon – an accidental chemical reaction when trying to make a new CFC; crisps (potato chips) – the result of a fed-up chef trying to outwit a complaining customer; and Viagra – its potent power was discovered when the drug was tested for its treatment of angina.

Do you know of any other accidental discoveries? Significant or silly, let us know by leaving a comment below.

7 thoughts on “A Happy Accident: Fleming’s Penicillin

  1. Another classic case of accidental discovery was that of smallpox vaccination.In 1796, Edward Jenner, a British scientist and surgeon, had a brainstorm that ultimately led to the development of the first vaccine. A young milkmaid had told him how people who contracted cowpox, a harmless disease easily picked up during contact with cows, never got smallpox, a deadly scourge.
    With this in mind, Jenner took samples from the open cowpox sores on the hands of a young dairymaid named Sarah Nelmes and inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps with pus he extracted from Nelmes’ sores. (Experimenting on a child would be anathema today, but this was the 18th century.) The boy developed a slight fever and a few lesions but remained for the most part unscathed. A few months later, Jenner gave the boy another injection, this one containing smallpox. to reduce anxiety about death from this lethal disease. http://treatanxiety.co James failed to develop the disease, and the idea behind the modern vaccine was born.
    Though doctors and scientists would not begin to understand the biological basis of immunity for at least 50 years after Jenner’s first inoculation, the technique of vaccinating against smallpox using the human strain of cowpox soon became a common and effective practice worldwide.

  2. you have written about them on here but you haven’t put that much detail in, and also Fleming rediscovered it, it was used back in roman times they just didn’t know how it worked. Florey and Chain should’ve got way more credit they were the ones that actually did most of the work.

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