“>Alexander Fleming richly deserved the rewards he received late in his life. A Nobel prize, a knighthood, burial in St. Paul’s Cathedral seem hardly out of proportion to the discovery of penicillin. The antibiotic saved thousands of soldiers’ lives during World War II and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, since. Florey and Chain, the two men who shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine, are a bit more obscure. Chain had a lengthy career in academia and Florey became head of the Royal Society, but only one man gets to be the "father of penicillin". Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s Fleming, the poorest scientist of the three.
Alexander Fleming richly deserved the rewards he received late in his life. A Nobel prize, a knighthood, burial in St. Paul’s Cathedral seem hardly out of proportion to the discovery of penicillin. The antibiotic saved thousands of soldiers’ lives during World War II and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, since. Florey and Chain, the two men who shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine, are a bit more obscure. Chain had a lengthy career in academia and Florey became head of the Royal Society, but only one man gets to be the "father of penicillin". Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s Fleming, the poorest scientist of the three. As commonly told, the discovery of penicillin is one of the great accidental triumphs in scientific history, perhaps rivalled only by Roentgen’s discovery of the X-ray and Penzias and Wilson’s discovery of the cosmic microwave background. And it’s true; Fleming’s sloppy laboratory technique had resulted in his discovering the mold’s antibiotic properties after he failed to properly sterilize a Petri dish before going home for the weekend; on Monday, he noticed that bacteria colonies weren’t growing the way he would have expected. But three years previously, Andre Gratia and Sara Dath discovered the anti-bacterial agent actinomycetin, and it hadn’t made nearly the impact that the discovery of penicillin did. It took some time, however. Fleming had a substance that he vaguely knew was important, but it took him over ten years to figure out exactly what to do with it. Growing it was painfully difficult, after all, and the publication of his results in 1929 attracted little notice.
Louis Pasteur, the single most important figure in nineteenth century medical research, said that "fortune favors the prepared mind." Fleming was only half-prepared; contemporary researchers didn’t put much stock into anti-bacterial chemicals, because the ones currently in use (mercury for syphilis, for example) were so toxic. Fleming took note of the penicillin, tested the "mould-broth" on rabbits, and assured himself that it was non-toxic. He stalled out there. It was up to Oxford biologist Howard Florey (later assisted by German refugee Ernst Chain) to refine the process and prove that it could be used practically on humans. By the 1920s, a commercial medical culture had come into existance, but the driving factor behind penicillin research was the war. The war meant that Florey and Chain could cut corners, build a team of researchers (both doctors and chemists), and requisition breweries in an attempt to produce enough penicillin for the war wounded. Industrial techniques could be used to mass-produce Florey was uncomfortable to publicize himself or his accomplishments, apparently feeling both that he was but one member of a team and that it would be wrong to get people’s hopes up prematurely. Fleming had no such reservations, and the myth of the lone inventor, the Edison of biology, proved powerful. (Edison, no stranger to marketing, cultivated this image relentlessly, taking credit for a number of inventions for which members of his research staff were largely responsible.)
Once penicillin had been identified as a promising agent, the real work of creating it in production quantities began. When Fleming had begun his research, the entire world’s supply of refined penicillin was a fraction of a dose. In 1940, the first human trial was performed on Albert Alexander, a London policeman dying from an infection from a nick he had incurred while shaving. Florey and Chaim had refined only five days’ worth of penicillin; when it ran out, they frantically tried re-extracting it from Alexander’s urine. The effort was a failure; Alexander relapsed and died a few days later. By D-Day, the American and British militaries had a sufficient supply to treat wounded soldiers. A decade after the war’s end, penicillin would be transforming medicine throughout the world.
Drug discoveries tend to crop up in odd places. The anti-cancer drug Taxol came from the pacific yew tree, a shrub that was commercially useless before the drug’s discovery. Finasteride, a drug used to treat enlarged prostate, has shown promise in preventing both prostate cancer and male-pattern baldness. Antibiotics tended to come from fungi and bacteria that produced chemicals to kill competitors; finding a better source of penicillin, enough to make a difference in the meat grinder of the European front, meant that the Allies need to launch a laborious cataloguing effort. Antibiotics are practically inescapable today, but the past 35 years of research have produced only one new antibiotic. Fleming earned the acclaim of the world; Chain and Florey won positions of authority; Pfizer and the other pharmaceutical companies that contributed research and manufacturing expertise to the war effort earned a chance at billions after the war’s end. But who remembers Mary Hunt? Hunt, a lab worker in Peoria, had been informed about the Army’s attempt to find a penicillin source. She brought her employers
a canteloupe melon infected with a "pretty, golden mould". This turned out to be Penicillium chrysogeum, a mould which gave about 200 times as much penicillin as the original form. By using X-rays to cause mutations and refining the whole process Florey and the teams in the US eventually produced a strain of mould which gave 1000 times the yield of penicillin from the original.
The lives of millions were saved by one lucky coincidence, one observant slob, two methodical researchers, a concerted military research program, and one Illinois woman and her cantelope. Fortune favors the prepared mind.