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Clif Cleaveland, MD
5 June 2014
Unexpected observations can play a significant role in
scientific advances. An unprepared mind dismisses the occurrence or
considers it a bother. A prepared mind asks, "What does this
In 1928 British research physician Alexander Fleming observed
that a contaminating speck of material prevented growth of bacteria
on a culture medium. The speck turned out to be bread mold from the
genus Penicillium. Fleming identified the mold and began a series
of studies on its properties. Subsequent experiments showed that a
filtrate of broth containing the mold could kill a variety of
bacteria involved in human disease. Fleming named the filtrate
"penicillin," a name that has stuck. Eventually, problems with
purifying penicillin frustrated Fleming, and he returned to
previous work. He summarized his penicillin experiments in a report
published in The British Journal of Experimental Pathology in
Nine years later, a trio of scientists at Oxford, Howard Florey,
Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley, focused their attention on the
discovery of antibacterial chemicals. With war clouds building over
Europe they realized the need to develop medications to treat wound
infections. Scouring earlier literature, Chain found the report by
Fleming. A sample of bread mold was obtained from an adjacent lab
and an amazing race to develop a miracle drug was underway.
The group appropriated every vessel they could locate for
growing mold in a variety of broths. Pie pans, large milk cans, and
metal containers of every description were appropriated for
culturing the mold. Young women, "penicillin girls," were hired to
tend to the smelly mixtures. While Florey and Chain worked on the
chemistry of penicillin, Heatley steadily improved methods for
growth, purification, and eventual mass production of the
In mid-1940, enough penicillin had been created to carry out an
experiment with mice. This showed that penicillin protected the
animals from streptococcal infection. The treated mice suffered no
apparent ill effects from penicillin. In January 1941, the first
dose of penicillin was administered to a woman who was dying of
cancer. She gave her consent to the experiment. No ill effects were
observed. In February enough penicillin had been manufactured to
treat for several days an Oxford policeman suffering from a severe
streptococcal and staphylococcal infection of head and neck. His
response was dramatic. Each day his urine was collected so that
excreted penicillin could be isolated and re-administered the
following day. Eventually, there was no more penicillin. The
infection recurred and the patient died.
Production problems and the strains of war made further work on
penicillin in England impractical. Florey and Heatley traveled to
America where they convinced American pharmaceutical companies to
take on the challenges. While in the US, they discovered a more
effective species of Penicillium growing on cantaloupe.
Florey felt strongly that discoveries such as penicillin
belonged appropriately to mankind and that individuals should not
profit from them. Consequently, the Oxford team derived no
financial reward for their work. American companies profited
greatly from patents related to their work with penicillin.
The first doses of penicillin reached North Africa in late 1942
for use in wounded soldiers. By war's end, countless doses had been
administered, substantially reducing deaths from infection among
Allied warriors. The subsequent impact of penicillin and its
derivatives in the treatment of a wide variety of bacterial
infections has been enormous.
Fleming and Florey were knighted in 1944. Fleming, Florey, and
Chain received the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1945
despite a vigorous press campaign to limit the award to Fleming.
The invaluable work of Norman Heatley was belatedly acknowledged
with the conferring in 1990 of an honorary Doctorate of Medicine by
This fascinating story is detailed in The Mold in Dr.
Florey's Coat by Eric Lax.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org