by Shamloo Arezoo & Mahdi Darvish,
PhD candidates at Polytechnique School of Montreal
The discovery of penicillin, one of the world’s first antibiotics, marks a true turning point in human history — when doctors finally had a tool that could completely cure their patients of deadly infectious diseases. Penicillin was discovered in London in September of 1928. As the story goes, Dr Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist on duty at St. Mary’s Hospital, returned from a summer vacation in Scotland to find a messy lab bench and a good deal more.
Upon examining some colonies of Staphylococcus aureus, Dr. Fleming noted that a mold called Penicillium notatum had contaminated his Petri dishes. After carefully placing the dishes under his microscope, he was amazed to find that the mold prevented the normal growth of the staphylococci.
As Dr. Fleming famously wrote about that red-letter date: “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”
Fourteen years later, in March 1942, Anne Miller became the first civilian patient to be successfully treated with penicillin, lying near death at New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, after miscarrying and developing an infection that led to blood poisoning.
In the war, penicillin proved its mettle. Throughout history, the major killer in wars had been infection rather than battle injuries. In World War I, the death rate from bacterial pneumonia was 18 percent; in World War II, it fell, to less than 1 percent.
From January to May in 1942, 400 million units of pure penicillin were manufactured. By the end of the war, American pharmaceutical companies were producing 650 billion units a month.
But who discovered such an important medicine that changed the world?
Alexander Fleming was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on August 6, 1881, and studied medicine, serving as a physician during World War I. Through research and experimentation, Fleming discovered a bacteria-destroying mold which he would call penicillin in 1928. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945 and died on March 11, 1955.
Fleming was a member of the Territorial Army, and served from 1900 to 1914 in the London Scottish Regiment. He entered the medical field in 1901, studying at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School at the University of London. While at St. Mary's, he won the 1908 gold medal as the top medical student.
Alexander Fleming had planned to become a surgeon, but a temporary position in the Inoculation Department at St. Mary's Hospital changed his path toward the then-new field of bacteriology. There, he developed his research skills under the guidance of bacteriologist and immunologist Sir Almroth Edward Wright, whose revolutionary ideas of vaccine therapy represented an entirely new direction in medical treatment.
In September 1928, Fleming returned to his laboratory after a month away with his family, and noticed that a culture of Staphylococcus aureus he had left out had become contaminated with a mold (later identified as Penicillium notatum). He also discovered that the colonies of staphylococci surrounding this mold had been destroyed.
Outside of the scientific community, Fleming was named rector of Edinburgh University from 1951 to 1954, freeman of many municipalities, and Honorary Chief Doy-gei-tau of the American Indian Kiowa tribe. He was also awarded honorary doctorate degrees from nearly 30 European and American universities. Fleming died of a heart attack on March 11, 1955, at his home in London, England.