“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.”
As much as resistance has started to occur in human beings to the misuse of the once considered powerful antibiotics, the fact still remains that antibiotics have been serving man’s fight against disease for nearly a century. Since the discovery of Penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, though accidental, has resulted in a multitude of drugs swarming in to destroy many of the deadly bacteria that find shelter in the vulnerable human body and slowly suck the life out of them.
The credit for this new phenomenal breakthrough goes to, as already mentioned above, Alexander Fleming, who accidentally stumbled upon this discovery while working on bread mould. Fleming was born in Scotland on August 6, 1881. His parents were farmers and he studied in different schools before moving to London where his elder brother lived. While serving the London Scottish Regiment of the Territorial Army, he joined St. Mary’s Medical School at the University of London and completed his medical studies with a gold medal. While he aspired to become a surgeon, his temporary post at the Inoculation Department in St. Mary’s Hospital triggered his interest in bacteriology, which was a new field at that time.
Fleming served under the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War when he discovered that antiseptics that were then used caused more harm than good because their diminishing effects outweighed their ability to breakdown bacteria and concluded that soldiers died of the continuous use of antiseptics, while suggesting that the death rates could be curbed by just keeping the wound dry and clean. It went unheeded at that time.
After returning from the war he re-joined St. Mary’s Hospital, and became Assistant Director of the Inoculation Department. In 1921, while nursing cold, he discovered lysozyme, a mildly antiseptic enzyme. A drop of his mucous dripped on to the culture plate and he mixed it hoping it would have some effect on the bacteria. As he had hoped, the bacteria in the culture plate had dissolved after few days. This marked Fleming’s first great discovery and contribution to human immune system. However, lysozymes proved useless against lethal bacteria.
On a fine September day, Fleming, returning after a month from a trip noticed that a culture of Staphylococcus aureus had been contaminated with a mould and the colonies that surrounded the mould had been destroyed. He named it Penicillin, after the mould that produced it Penicillium notatum. Further investigations revealed to Fleming that Penicillin was not a powerful antiseptic as he thought it would be, but rather an antibiotic, thus revolutionizing battlefield medicine and on a broader scale, the field of infection control during the Second World War.Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize of Physiology along with Howard Florey and Edward Chain who purified and isolated Penicillin at the University of Oxford.
After the discovery that made him very popular among the medical and scientific fraternity, Fleming died of a heart attack in 1955 at the age of 74.