4 April 1972
Sunday Times Man Discovers Man: Alexander Fleming
Louis Pasteur, with whom Sir Alexander Fleming must rank as an innovator upon whose achievements modern medicine pivots, once remarked that there are no accidents in science; in the field of observation, chance favours only the mind prepared.
Although the now-famous story of the discovery of penicillin is rich with the romance of coincidence, the facts leading to it illustrate Pasteurs observation perfectly.
The phenomenon upon which Fleming pounced in the summer of 1928 at St. Marys Hospital, Paddington might well have gone unobserved but for his isolation six years earlier of an antibacterial called lysozyme which is found in normal body tissues and secretions. Fleming had cultured this natural antibacterial, out of sheer curiosity, from his own nasal secretions while afflicted with a cold. More defensive than curative in function, lysozyme had little future in therapeutic application, but its significance lay in the fact that, as Professor Charles Pannett said, Hitherto all known antiseptics had injured cells more than bacteria; here was one which was harmless to cells.
So when Fleming was engaged in staphylococcal research six years later, he was acutely susceptive to the possibilities of naturally occurring antibacterial agents. The legendary stray mould spore which implanted itself on one of his uncovered microbe cultures made it, to Fleming, a subject not for discard but for investigation. He put aside his project to observe the action of the mould, cultivate it, and explore its antibacterial properties. Penicillin had been discovered.
But Fleming had not the technology to develop penicillin. He described its properties, and it was used in a few septic wound dressings around 1930. As it was peacetime there were few such wounds, and the therapeutic aspect was dropped. Chain and Florey worked on bacterial antagonism during the next decade, and, by 1937, had completed their research into lysozyme, Flemings earlier discovery.
They were discussing what substance should be investigated next when,
by chance, they came across Flemings paper describing penicillin.
As luck would have it, some cultures of penicillin were available on the
spot at the School of Pathology in Oxford, so penicillin was selected
for their attentions. Chain and Florey extracted a more concentrated form
and determined its life-saving antibacterial action first in mice then
in men. Manufacture became a problem in a country with its resources stretched
to the limit by war: Florey had to persuade the Americans to use their
production know-how before penicillin was produced in useful quantities.
Sunday Times work on the left. Later I wrote more prosaic entries for
the 1000 Makers of the 20th Century."
"For a while I was the New Scientists science fiction book reviewer. Two of the books I reviewed in the style of the book itself. Below is the carbon of my submission."
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