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A spore that drifted into his lab and took root on a culture dish started a chain of events that altered forever the
The improbable chain of events that led Alexander
bacteriologist." Although he went on to perform
Fleming to discover penicillin in 1928 is the stuff of
additional experiments, he never conducted the one
which scientific myths are made. Fleming, a young
that would have been key: injecting penicillin into
Scottish research scientist with a profitable side
infected mice. Fleming's initial work was reported in
practice treating the syphilis infections of prominent
1929 in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology,
London artists, was pursuing his pet theory — that his
but it would remain in relative obscurity for a decade.
own nasal mucus had antibacterial effects — when he
By 1932, Fleming had abandoned his work on
left a culture plate smeared with Staphylococcus
penicillin. He would have no further role in the
bacteria on his lab bench while he went on a two-week
subsequent development of this or any other antibiotic,
aside from happily providing other researchers with
When he returned, he noticed a clear halo surrounding
samples of his mold. It is said that he lacked both the
the yellow-green growth of a mold that had
chemical expertise to purify penicillin and the
accidentally contaminated the plate. Unknown to him,
conviction that drugs could cure serious infections.
a spore of a rare variant called Penicillium notatum had
However, he did safeguard his unusual strain of
drifted in from a mycology lab one floor below. Luck
Penicillium notatum for posterity. The baton of
would have it that Fleming had decided not to store his
antibiotic development was passed to others.
culture in a warm incubator, and that London was then
In 1939 a specimen of Fleming's mold made its way
hit by a cold spell, giving the mold a chance to grow.
into the hands of a team of scientists at Oxford
Later, as the temperature rose, the Staphylococcus
University led by Howard Florey, an Australian-born
bacteria grew like a lawn, covering the entire plate —
physiologist. This team had technical talent, especially
except for the area surrounding the moldy contaminant.
in a chemist named Ernst Boris Chain, who had fled
Seeing that halo was Fleming's "Eureka" moment, an
Nazi Germany. Armed with funding from the
instant of great personal insight and deductive
Rockefeller Foundation, these scientists made it their
reasoning. He correctly deduced that the mold must
objective to identify and isolate substances from molds
have released a substance that inhibited the growth of
that could kill bacteria. The mission was inspired by
the earlier work of Gerhard Domagk, who in 1935
It was a discovery that would change the course of
showed that the injection of a simple compound,
history. The active ingredient in that mold, which
Prontosil, cured systemic streptococcal infections. This
Fleming named penicillin, turned out to be an
breakthrough demonstrated that invading bacteria
infection-fighting agent of enormous potency. When it
could be killed with a drug and led to a fevered search
was finally recognized for what it was — the most
in the late 1930s for similar compounds. Fleming's
efficacious life-saving drug in the world — penicillin
Penicillium notatum became the convenient starting
would alter forever the treatment of bacterial
infections. By the middle of the century, Fleming's
In a scientific tour de force, Florey, Chain and their
discovery had spawned a huge pharmaceutical
colleagues rapidly purified penicillin in sufficient
industry, churning out synthetic penicillins that would
quantity to perform the experiment that Fleming could
conquer some of mankind's most ancient scourges,
not: successfully treating mice that had been given
including syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis.
lethal doses of bacteria. Within a year, their results
Fleming was born to a Scottish sheep-farming family
were published in a seminal paper in the Lancet. As the
in 1881. He excelled in school and entered St. Mary's
world took notice, they swiftly demonstrated that
Hospital in London to study medicine. He was a short
injections of penicillin caused miraculous recoveries in
man, usually clad in a bow tie, who even in his
patients with a variety of infections.
celebrity never mastered the conventions of polite
The Oxford team did not stop there. Rushing to meet
society. Fleming probably would have remained a
the needs of World War II, they helped the government
quiet bacteriologist had serendipity not come calling
set up a network of "minifactories" for penicillin
production. Florey also played a crucial role in
In fact, Fleming was not even the first to describe the
galvanizing the large-scale production of penicillin by
antibacterial properties of Penicillium. John Tyndall
U.S. pharmaceutical companies in the early 1940s. By
had done so in 1875 and, likewise, D.A. Gratia in
D-day there was enough penicillin on hand to treat
1925. However, unlike his predecessors, Fleming
every soldier who needed it. By the end of World War
recognized the importance of his findings. He would
later say, "My only merit is that I did not neglect the
Pneumonia, syphilis, gonorrhea, diphtheria, scarlet
observation and that I pursued the subject as a
fever and many wound and childbirth infections that
once killed indiscriminately suddenly becametreatable. As deaths caused by bacterial infectionsplummeted, a grateful world needed a hero. Flemingalone became such an object of public adulation,probably for two reasons. First, Florey shunned thepress, while Fleming seemed to revel in the publicity.
Second, and perhaps more important, it was easier forthe admiring public to comprehend the deductiveinsight of a single individual than the technical feats ofa team of scientists.
Awards and accolades came to Fleming in rapidsuccession, including a knighthood (with Florey) in1944 and the Nobel Prize for Medicine (with Floreyand Chain) in 1945. By this time, even Fleming wasaware that penicillin had an Achilles' heel. He wrote in1946 that "the administration of too small doses .
leads to the production of resistant strains of bacteria."It's a problem that plagues us to this day.
When he died of a heart attack in 1955, he wasmourned by the world and buried as a national hero inthe crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. AlthoughFleming's scientific work in and of itself may not havereached greatness, his singular contribution changedthe practice of medicine. He deserves our utmostrecognition. At the same time, we must bear in mindthat the "Fleming Myth," as he called it, embodies theaccomplishments of many giants of antibioticdevelopment. Fleming is but a chosen representativefor the likes of Florey, Chain, Domagk, SelmanWaksman and Rene Dubos, many of whom remain,sadly, virtual unknowns. Their achievements havemade the world a better, healthier place. Incommemorating Fleming, we commemorate them all.
Dr. David Ho is director of the Aaron Diamond AIDSResearch Center in New York City and TIME's 1996Man of the Year.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF WAUZEKA-STEUBEN As we enter the new school year nd the traditional influenza season, we expect Wisconsin to continue seeing cases of the new pandemic flu. School and public health officials are working closely to keep our children safe and healthy. We need your help! ant thing you can do is to keep your child home if he/she is ill. If your child is so sick t
ROSEVILLE JOINT UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF TRUSTEES – SPECIAL SESSION - TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 6, 2007 - DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION CENTER 1750 CIRBY WAY, ROSEVILLE, CALIFORNIA CALL TO ORDER The meeting was called to order at 4:02 PM by Mr. Genzlinger, President. ROLL CALL Staff Present: Tony Monetti, Secretary, Sherie Feder/Recorder, Glen DeGraw, John Montgomery, Gary Steve