In 1928, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming made a chance discovery when he happened to examine an already discarded, contaminated Petri dish. He saw a mould in the solution inside the Petri dish. The mold that had contaminated the experiment contained a powerful antibiotic, penicillin. Though. Fleming is credited with discovering Penicillin but it took a decade before penicillin would turn into the wonder drug and change the 20th century.

Early Life


On August 6, 1881, Sir Alexander Fleming was born at Lochfield farm near Darvel in Ayrshire, Scotland. His father, Hugh Fleming, was a farmer and Grace Sterling was his mother. He was third of the four children. Alexander was seven years old when his father passed away. His Scottish surrounding sharpened his observation skills and appreciation of the natural world.

He attended Louden Moor School and Darvel School. He then earned a two-year scholarship to Kilmarnock Academy before moving to London where he attended the Royal Polytechnic. He spent four years working inashipping office before entering St. Mary's Medical School, London University. He attended the medical school after his elder brother, Thomas, who worked as an oculist, suggested that he too should follow medicine as his career. Bright Alexander saw this as his opportunity and joined the medical school in 1901. At the university, he was funded by a scholarship and a legacy from his uncle. He qualified with distinction in 1906. At first, he wanted to be a surgeon but then after working temporarily in the Inoculation Department at St. Mary's Medical School, he realized that his field was in Bacteriology. While there, he came and began research at St. Mary's under Sir Almroth Wright , who was a pioneer in vaccine therapy. He was awarded a gold medal in 1908 for being the top medical student at the London University. He then continued as a lecturer at the university till 1914.

In 1915, he married an Irish nurse, Sarah Marion McElroy. During World War I, he worked as a bacteriologist with the Royal Army Medical Corps. As a bacteriologist, he studied wound infection at a medical hospital in a casino in Boulogne, France.
There he proved that strong antiseptics on wounds did more harm than good. He suggested that the wound should be kept as clean as possible. He returned to St. Mary's in 1918. On his arrival, he was promoted as the assistant director of the inoculation department.

First Discovery

After returning from World War I, he began searching for anti-bacterial agents. He began his search after seeing numerous soldiers dying because of infected wounds. Then in 1921, Fleming discovered Lysozyme. It was an enzyme, present in body fluids such as saliva and tears, which had a mild antiseptic in it. Fleming considered the study of Lysozyme as his best work as a scientist. His work on the enzyme was significant because it helped one understand how the body fought against infection. However, this enzyme had very little or no effect on pathogenic bacteria.

The Chance Discovery in 1928

On September 28, 1928, Alexander Fleming returned to his work bench in the laboratory at St. Mary's Medical School after a vacation at his country house with his family. As he sat at his work bench he saw something unusual. Before he had left on his vacation, Fleming had piled a number of his Petri dishes to the side of the bench. He noticed that a certain culture plate had been contaminated by a fungus.
At that time he was working to discover the properties of Staphylococci. On a broader spectrum he was trying to find a  'wonder drug' that would prevent the infection in the wounds without harming the human body. What he found astonishing in the fungus was that the colonies of Staphylococci around the fungus had been destroyed. The farther colonies were still normal. Fleming now wondered whether he was within reach to find a wonder drug.

The Mould

Fleming then showed the contaminated culture to his former assistant Merlin Price. Price urged Fleming to further conduct studies on the fungus. Fleming then placed the fungus mould in a pure culture. Soon, he discovered that the fungus killed a number of disease killing bacteria. Then, he once again showed the mould to Price and then identified the mould as belonging to the Penicillium Genus. Then, after calling it "mould juice" for a few months, he named the mould Penicillin on March 7,1928. 
Fleming then observed the beneficial effect of the mould on various organisms. His observations showed him that the mould showed positive effect against several bacteria that cause scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis, typhoid fever and several other bacteria caused infections and diseases.

He further tried to find out the substance in penicillin that destroyed the bacteria. Though he was unable to purify and stabilize penicillin but he did prove that it was the drug that worked as an antiseptic against a number of diseases caused by various bacteria.
Then, in 1929, Fleming published his discovery in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. But little attention was paid to his article. Though disappointed with response to his article Fleming continued with his experiments on Penicillin.
Could this be the "wonder drug"? Fleming, himself was not certain about it though he saw the potential of the drug.

Twelve Years Later

Though no matter what Fleming did he wasn't able to produce the drug in quantity. Also as its action was rather slow Fleming thought that the drug may not be important in treating humans. His further tests also remained inconclusive. Also as he wasn't a chemist he could not further refine penicillin which had been used. After a few years, Fleming then gave up on penicillin.
Then in 1940, the second year of World War II, two scientists at Oxford University started researching on promising projects in bacteriology. Then, Australian Pathologist Howard Florey and British Biochemist Ernst Chain began working with penicillin. Using new chemical techniques, these two were able to produce a brown powder that kept its antibacterial power for more than a few days. As they continued to experiment with the powder they found it to be safe.
As World War II was underway, the duo started making mass production of Penicillin. The use of penicillin during the world war saved the lives of many soldiers.


Though Fleming had discovered penicillin, it were Florey and Chain who had converted it into a usable product. For their contribution to medicine, Fleming, Florey and Chain were jointly awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Nonetheless, it was Fleming's chance discovery that had changed the world of medicine. He is therefore credited with the discovery of penicillin.
Penicillin has cemented Fleming's name in medical history. A few years before he received the Nobel Prize, Fleming was knighted. Later, it was in 1949 that his first wife passed away. Then, in 1953.
Fleming married Greek microbiologist Amalia Coutsouris-Voureka. In the last decade of his life, Fleming remained among the best known scientist of his time. He passed away in 1955 after a heart attack.
Fleming would always be known as the discoverer of the "wonder drug" penicillin.

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