~Alexander Fleming~

by Lena Martens

Before the discovery of penicillin there was no effective treatment for sicknesses and diseases such as pneumonia, gonorrhea or rheumatic fever. Hospitals were full of people who had blood poisoning from a simple paper cut or scratch. Doctors watched these people die as they could do nothing, but wait and hope for a miracle.

Sir Alexander Fleming was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. He attended Loudon Moor School, Darvel School, and Kilmarnock Academy before attending Polytechnic in London. He spent four years in a shipping office before entering St. Mary's Medical School, London University. Early in his medical life, Fleming started an interested in the natural bacterial action of the blood and antiseptics. He qualified with distinction in 1906 and began his research at St. Mary's under Sir Almroth Wright.

In September 1928, Alexander Fleming returned to his laboratory after being a month away with his family. Before he had left, Fleming had conducted research on petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus, bacteria that causes boils, sore throats and abscesses. As Fleming was going through the petri dishes, he noticed one of the dishes with mold on it. Mold growing wasn't that unusual to Fleming, but this specific mold had killed the Staphylococcus that was on the dish. He was inspired to further experiment.

Fleming spent several weeks growing more mold trying to determine the substance that had killed the bacteria. After discussing the mold with C. J. La Touche a mycologist, they found it to be Penicillium mold, later called penicillin. Fleming then ran numerous experiments to determine what the effect of this mold had on other bacteria. Surprisingly the mold killed a large number of the bacteria. With further tests Fleming found that this mold was also non-toxic.

Fleming wasn't a chemist though, so he was not able to isolate the antibacterial element, penicillin, and couldn't keep it active long enough to be used in humans. In 1940, the second year of World War II, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain began working with penicillin. Using new chemical techniques, they were able to produce a brown powder that kept its antibacterial power for longer than a few days. They experimented and found the powder to be safe.

Needing the new drug immediately for the war front, production started quickly. The availability of penicillin during the war saved many lives that would have been lost due to bacterial infections in even minor diseases.

Fleming's research and discovery of penicillin saved millions of lives by stopping the growth of bacteria that is responsible for poisoning the blood and causing many other once fatal diseases.