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Why was Penicillin a Medical Cinderella??

When Alexander Fleming’s picture turned up on the front cover of Time magazine, the byword stated "His penicillin will save more lives than war can spend".  A vivid example of this ‘miracle’ was the usage of penicillin on D-Day to save 3,000 on Normandy Beach from deadly gangrene.  Some researchers consider penicillin to be one of the key top-secret weapons that helped the Allies win World War II.

It is hard for our modern generation to fully appreciate that before penicillin, even an infected pinprick or a tiny cut might be lethal.  Hospitals were full of people with easily caught infections raging out of control.  Children died regularly from scarlet fever, from infections of the bones, throat, stomach, or brain.  It is no exaggeration to say that many of you reading this article would not be here today if it weren’t for the miracle of antibiotics touching you and your extended family.
In 1881, Alexander Fleming was born in Ayrshire in the lowlands of southwestern Scotland.  A playground accident smashed the bridge of his nose and left him looking like a battered boxer.  Andre Maurois said that Fleming had those qualities which many attribute to the Scots: a capacity for hard and sustained work, a combative spirit which refuses to admit defeat, a steadfastness and loyalty which creates respect and affection, and a true humility which protects against pretentiousness and pride.

Affectionately called Little Flem, his gift of silence appeared to be inexhaustible.  One colleague said that Fleming ‘could be more eloquently silent than any man I have ever known.’  His capacity for silence was only matched by his capacity for waiting – and for hanging on, an attribute that greatly helped him in his penicillin adventure.

The body’s fight with infection was Fleming’s abiding interest.  One of Fleming’s first breakthroughs was in the discovery of lysozyme, a natural antiseptic contained in human tears and saliva.  Fleming’s method of collecting lysozyme was to recruit a passing student or laboratory boy and drop lemon juice in his eye!  Eventually Fleming switched to the use of egg white which has a stronger concentration of lysozyme.

Lysozyme, unfortunately, ended up being an embarrassment to Fleming because it proved useless in killing harmful diseases.  As a result, his fellow colleagues mostly treated Fleming’s later penicillin discovery as if it were another laboratory dead-end.  Alexander Fleming always said, ‘We shall hear more about lysozyme one day’.  With thousands of scientific papers now written about it, the Russians use lysozyme for preserving caviar; doctors add lysozyme to cow-milk to reproduce the component structure of human milk, as well as for the treatment of eye and intestinal infections.

Fleming, being a ‘packrat’, never liked to throw anything away.  One day, Fleming noticed a blue mould growing on one of his unwashed petri dishes.  He seized the moment and changed the world forever.  From that moment, Fleming became obsessed with penicillin mould, even using his friends’ moldy old shoes. Fleming showed amazing ingenuity in his makeshift creation of the first penicillin ‘factory’, employing devices like oilcans, biscuit tins, dustbins, bedpans, milk churns, and bookracks!

For twelve long years after his 1928 discovery of penicillin, Fleming faced skeptical indifference.  Penicillin was a medical Cinderella that no one wanted to dance with.  Click to find out how this Cinderella finally met her ‘Prince Charming’ in 1942….


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