Of all the medical discoveries penicillin brought us in the 20th century, this is probably the most practical and the most important. Also the most anecdotal was discovered by pure chance, thanks to an accident caused by a distraction of a doctor and microbiologist named Alexander Fleming.
Fleming and his penicillin are considered by many to be the most important incidental discovery in history, and rightly so, we have one of the most effective and recurring antibiotics for human use.
Then we will discover the life of this researcher through a biography of Alexander Fleming, in which we will see how he discovered that the broth of a fungus fights certain bacteria and the importance this meant for his time, especially with the onset of World War II.
Brief biography of Alexander Fleming
Sir Alexander Fleming was a Scottish physician and microbiologist known the world over for his discovery of the properties of penicillin., a substance released by a common fungus. This breakthrough was crucial for the history of medicine in the last century because, despite many discoveries made throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were still many pathogenic diseases that resisted the therapeutic methods of the time. .
Among the great advances in medicine and biology in the 19th century was the establishment of the microbial origin of infectious diseases, thanks to figures of scientists such as Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur. However, despite efforts to develop vaccines, many infectious diseases continued to have fatal effects in most cases, and there was no way to fight them once they were contracted.
This is why penicillin has been shown to be so important he was able to destroy pathogens without damaging the body, a biological antiseptic that respects the human body. The substance Fleming discovered not only saved millions of lives, but also revolutionized therapeutic methods, ushering in the era of antibiotics and, consequently, the establishment of modern medicine.
The first years
Alexander Fleming was born August 6, 1881 near Darvel, East Ayrshire, Scotland., in a peasant family engaged in agriculture and breeding. He was the third of four children from his father Hugh Fleming’s second marriage to his mother Grace Stirling Morton. His father died when Alexander was only seven, leaving his widowed mother in the care of the family farm with the help of one of her stepchildren.
At the age of thirteen, Alexander Fleming moved to London with his half-brother Thomas, who worked there as a doctor. Fleming graduated with two courses at Regent Street Polytechnic, later working in the offices of a shipping company.
Medical studies and military service
Flemish in 1900 enlisted in the London Scottish Regiment to take part in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), but the conflict ends before his unit can embark and take part in the battle.
However, his taste for military life led him to stay in this regiment, participating in World War I as an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps in France. He was also part of the rifle unit of the School of Medicine.
In 1901, at the age of twenty, he inherited a small inheritance from his uncle John Fleming who helped him study medicine. He then received a scholarship to St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington, an institution with which she would eventually have a lifelong relationship. In 1906, he graduated in medicine and surgery and began to be part of the team of bacteriologist Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer of vaccines and immunology, with whom he associated for forty years.
Fleming was an extraordinary student, and proof of this is that he was awarded the University of London Gold Medal in 1908.. A few years later, in 1914, he began teaching at St. Mary’s, London, and a year later married Sarah Marion McElroy, an Irish nurse with whom she had her eldest son, Robert Fleming.
Appointed professor of bacteriology, he became professor in 1928 and retired as professor emeritus in 1948, although he was director of the Wright-Fleming Institute of Microbiology until 1954, an institution founded in his honor and that of his former teacher and researcher.
First antibacterial discoveries
Flemish has devoted his professional life to research on the human body’s defenses against bacterial infections, task that has earned him to associate his name with two major discoveries in this field: lysozyme and penicillin. While lysozyme is remarkable, it was his discovery of penicillin that made Alexander Fleming’s name go down in history as the most important from a practical standpoint.
Flemish discovered lysozyme in 1922 when he observed that nasal discharge, tears, and saliva had the ability to dissolve certain types of bacteria., acting as a barrier against infections. He later proved that this ability depended on an active enzyme, lysozyme, which is found in many body tissues. Its discovery revealed something revolutionary for its time since it showed that there were substances which, on the one hand, were harmless to the cells of the body but, on the other hand, were lethal to pathogenic bacteria.
Penicillin: the accident that saved millions of lives
The discovery of penicillin, one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century, happened accidentally, accidentally.. On September 28, 1928, Alezander Fleming, returning from vacation, would make a surprising discovery, in part because he was confused and didn’t have a very tidy lab.
He was then conducting a study on the mutations of certain colonies of staphylococci and discovered that one of his cultures had been accidentally contaminated by a microorganism in the outside air, a fungus that he would later identify as Penicillium notatum.
It would have been just an anecdote, the product of some disorganization had it not been for Fleming, full of curiosity and surprise, to perceive the behavior of the crop as strange. He saw that the area where the contamination had occurred was staphylococcal, something Fleming interpreted as the effect that the fungus had an antibacterial substance and this weakened the bacteria culture.
Alexander Fleming himself would say the following about this startling discovery:
“Sometimes you can’t find what you’re looking for.” But I guess that’s exactly what I did.
By experimenting with it, Fleming was able to benefit from it despite the limited resources in his laboratory at the time.. He observed that a pure fungal culture broth acquired, in a few days, a high level of antibacterial activity. He conducted several experiments focused on the degree of sensitivity to broth of various types of pathogenic bacteria, noting that many of these pathogens were quickly destroyed by the action of penicillin.
He then injected the culture into rabbits and mice, proving that it was harmless to leukocytes, leading him to conclude that the substance had a reliable and harmless index to animal cells. Fleming observed that this substance, even diluted, had a much higher antibacterial power than strong antiseptics such as phenolic acid.
About eight months after the first observations, Fleming published the results in an article that is now considered a classic in bacteriology, although it did not generate much interest at the time. Although Fleming understood from the outset the importance of the antibacterial power of penicillin, this it took him another fifteen years to become the universal therapeutic agent that he would eventually become.
The last years and death
One of the reasons why penicillin was not so popular immediately has to do with the fact that its purification process was exceedingly difficult for the chemical techniques of the time. Fortunately, this was resolved thanks to research carried out in Oxford by the team of Australian pathologist Howard Florey and German chemist Ernst B. Chain, who in 1939 obtained a grant for the study of antimicrobial substances secreted by microorganisms. .
In 1941, the first satisfactory results were obtained with human patients.. During the Second World War, means were invested in this type of research, which made it possible, in 1944, to treat all the seriously wounded of the famous and crucial battle of Normandy with penicillin.
Thanks to this, Alexander Fleming managed to achieve the fame he so deserved, albeit with some delay. By 1942 he had already been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and would receive the title of Sir two years later. In 1945, he shared with Florey and Chain the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1946 he was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor from the Royal College of Surgeons and in 1948 he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Alfonso X the Wise.
His wife Sarah died in 1949 and Alexander Fleming remarried in 1953, this time to a Greek physician named Amalia Koutsouri-Vourekas. In 1951 he was appointed rector of the University of Edinburgh.
After a lifetime of research and being the discoverer of the most important medical breakthrough of the 20th century, Alexander Fleming died on March 11, 1955 at his home in London, of a heart attack at the age of 74. . Given the great discovery he made and being indirectly responsible for saving millions of lives, his body was buried as a national hero in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
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