A life-saving miracle

It’s hard to imagine a world without the life-saving antibiotic, penicillin. Yet, it was only around a hundred years ago that Alexander Fleming first realised its importance. During the First World War Fleming realised the use of antiseptics was not preventing infections, particularly in deep wounds. And it was a lucky accident in 1928 that led him to discover something that would change healthcare forever more.

Fleming had been on holiday in Suffolk. He had left some petri dishes containing a culture in a corner of his laboratory. On his return, Fleming noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus, and that this fungus was destroying the cultures it was in contact with.  He identified this mould as Penicillium. 

Sir Alexander Fleming

Fleming was quoted as saying:

One sometimes finds, what one is not looking for. 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 suppose that was exactly what I did.

Alexander Fleming

But like all things scientific, Fleming needed funds to continue his research. With the Second World War once again showing the desperate need for treatment of injuries of every kind, government funding enabled two Oxford scientists, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey to continue Fleming’s work. But mass producing penicillin was no easy task. Thousands of milk bottles produced only enough penicillin to treat four mice! Finally, in 1941, when America entered the war, further funding was provided so that penicillin could be mass produced. By 1945, it was estimated that the US army was giving two million doses of penicillin per month.

Of course, now we have another problem – the overuse of antibiotics is threatening their effectiveness, with the emergence of ‘superbugs’. And so, once again we look to the wondrous scientists across the world to provide the answers.

Blue plaque erected in 1981 by Greater London Council at 20a Danvers Street, Chelsea, London, SW3 5AT, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Published by Isabella Muir

Isabella is passionate about exploring family life from the 1930s through to the 1960s. She has published five Sussex Crime mystery novels set during the 1960s, a standalone novel dealing with the child migrant policy of the 1950s and 60s, several novellas set during the Second World War, and two short story collections. All available in paperback from your local bookshops, or online as ebooks. Her novels are also available as audiobooks, and have been translated into Italian.

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