Matthew Beyer has begun a “Moments In History” series to raise awareness of important historical events. Each post will also have book recommendations about the moment in history, using our extensive history collection in the library.
September 28th, 1928
Discovery of Penicillin
On this fateful day, Scottish physician and microbiologist Alexander Fleming made a discovery that would go on to change medicine forever. While working on research and experiments with Staphylococcus bacteria in his lab, he woke the morning of the 28th of September to find one of his Petri dishes had its lid popped off and had been contaminated. While investigating the source of the contamination, he noticed a strange green ring that had appeared around the dish. This ring was a green fungus mold known as “Penicillium notatum.”
What he found so fascinating was that the bacteria surrounding the ring had not only not penetrated it but had been destroyed by the mold. Meanwhile, those farther away from it were unharmed and still growing. He would later remark:
“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.”
It would still take many years of peer review, as well as isolating and growing the mold into a pure culture and tested on patients for its effects as a treatment of bacterial infections.
However, by 1942, penicillin was in mass production and might even have helped tip the scales in favor of the Allies during WWII, as it is thought to have saved as many as 12% to 15% of Allied soldiers’ lives from sepsis and other infections from recently amputated limbs. It would also be used to treat prominent illnesses and diseases such as pneumonia and gonorrhea.
On average, 33 million pounds of penicillin is produced around the world each year. All told, it is estimated that penicillin has saved around 200 million people worldwide and continues to do so today. In 1999, Alexander Fleming was named among the top 100 most influential people of the 20th century in Time magazine.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to know more about Alexander Fleming and his work, I encourage you to follow the link down below for a fantastic book and on the subject.