The original ‘happy accident’
Never has the phrase ‘happy accident’ been more apt than for what is undoubtedly the most important discovery of the 20th century: Penicillin.
In 1928, a young bacteriologist called Alexander Fleming noticed a mould growing on a set of culture dishes accidentally left unattended and being used to grow the staphylococci germ. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yet scarcely could Fleming have dreamed of the effect his discovery would have on humanity – not least in the war that engulfed the world soon after. While no concrete figures exist for the amount of lives saved by his discovery, one statistic stands above all others. Production of penicillin in World War Two stood at 400 million units per month in early 1943. Just two years later it had risen to an astonishing 650 billion units per month…
All this was a neat twist of fate for Fleming: As a medical officer serving with the British Army in France during World War One, he’d seen first-hand how soldiers died from infected wounds that seemed immune to all known antiseptics; an experience that Fleming often credited for leading him into the field of bacterial research - and ultimately the identification of the world’s first antibiotic.
Astonishingly, this wasn’t the first time that the science gods had smiled on Fleming. His other major achievement was the discovery of lysozyme (an antiseptic enzyme found in the body). While suffering from a cold in the early 1920s, a drop of mucus fell from his nose onto a bacterial culture and, hey presto: Thus became a key contribution to our understanding of the human immune system.
Like many great scientists, Fleming was a modest man. Born to a humble family of Scottish farmers, he was also a team player. In fact it was two other researchers – Ernst Boris Chain and Edward Abraham – who actually discovered how to isolate the penicillin and increase its potential; and it’s they who share the fabled Nobel Prize for science with Fleming.
By the time he died at the age of 74, Fleming had carved his place in history and was an honorary member of virtually every known medical and scientific society in the world.
Not bad for a careless lab assistant.