Scotland’s Greatest Gift – Penicillin

On a sunny morning in September 1928, Scottish biologist Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally made one of the most

Sir Alexander Fleming, FRSE, FRS, FRCS(Eng) 6 August 1881 – 11 March 1955

Sir Alexander Fleming, FRSE, FRS, FRCS(Eng)
6 August 1881 – 11 March 1955

important medicinal discoveries of all time. After returning from holiday with his family, he noticed that one of the cultures of bacteria he had left sitting on a bench in his laboratory had developed mould which had destroyed the bacteria colonies immediately surrounding. He found the mould released a substance that could destroy many disease-causing bacterias, paving the way for how antibiotics are used to treat infection. After some months of calling his discovery ‘mould juice’, he named the substance penicillin, which would go on to revolutionise modern medicine.

This week I got tonsillitis for the first time in my life, and never before have I felt so much pain in my throat. After nights of waking up covered in sweat with a savagely high fever, and not being able to swallow anything without an exceptional amount of pain, I decided to go to the doctor when I finally lost the ability to talk. Nearing the limits of my pain threshold, my doctor prescribed penicillin which amazingly seemed to combat the infection straight away. I’m feeling much better now, and rather indebted to this lovely Scottish biologist who provided the means to cure me of my ailment.

Born in 1881 near Davel in Ayrshire, Sir Alexander Fleming is perhaps the most notable member of Clan Fleming. Following in his brother’s footsteps he studied to be a Physician at Saint Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. He joined a research team where he became assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy and immunology. During World War One, Fleming served along the Western Front as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Witness to hundreds of deaths from sepsis resulting from infected wounds, Fleming wrote an article for a medical journal during this time proposing that antiseptic was killing more soldiers than infection in battlefield hospitals. He explained that antiseptic worked well on the surface, but deep wounds tended to shelter anaerobic bacteria from antiseptic agents. Despite the publication of the article and strong support from Sir Almroth, many wartime medical practitioners continued to use antiseptic even when it worsened the condition of the patient.

Fleming published his discovery of penicillin in 1929, however little attention was paid as cultivation of the antibiotic was quite difficult and it was thought that it wouldn’t last long enough in the human body to cure infection. Fleming continued his research, trying to find a chemist skilled enough to refine usable penicillin, before abandonning the drug in 1940. Not long after this Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain undertook research into how to mass produce penicillin. Funded by the US and British Governments, the two chemists discovered how to isolate and purify the antibiotic and were able to make vast quantities just in time for it to be used in the allied invasion of Normandy and the remaining year of World War Two. However Fleming warned not to use penicillin unless there was a properly diagnosed reason, and that if it were used, never to use too little, or for too short a period, since these are the circumstances under which bacterial resistance to antibiotics develops.

In an article recently published by the BBC, Professor Dame Sally Davies explained that the rise in drug resistant infections is comparable to the threat of global warming. Bacteria evolves rapidly by finding new ways to combat antibiotics, with reports growing steadily of resistance in strains of E.Coli, tuberculosis and gonorrhea. Davies said the problem is global and needs much more attention. “It is clear that we might not ever see global warming, the apocalyptic scenario is that when I need a new hip in 20 years I’ll die from a routine infection because we’ve run out of antibiotics.”

In 2009 penicillin was named as Scotland’s greatest contribution to the world, coming ahead of Scotch, the telephone and haggis. Fleming’s discovery is accredited with saving millions of lives, and is the reason why many of us are here today. Perhaps it is time for a new generation of brilliant Scottish minds to come together to combat the rise of bacterial resistance that Fleming so cleverly foresaw all those years ago.


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