This blog post first appeared in Society magazine in February 2016.
February 14th is, of course, a very special day in the calendar. It is a day many of us look forward to with anticipation. It celebrates the greatness of life; the triumph of hope over pain; the possibility of happiness and the ending of misery.
On 14th February 1929 it is said that Penicillin was discovered.
Penicillin is a drug that we now take for granted, but it has saved literally millions of lives. Before its introduction there was no effective treatment for infection. Hospitals were full of people with blood poisoning contracted from a cut or a scratch, and doctors could do little for them but wait and hope.
As with many truly revolutionary discoveries, this one was by accident. Alexander Fleming worked at St Marys in Paddington. He returned from the First World War very aware that infection and bacteria were as great a killer as artillery. He was determined to find a chemical that could stop the rot.
Fleming was very disorganised. His lab and office were a mess. One day late in 1928 he was trying to clear up a pile of petri dishes that had been left about. He noted that on one dish a mould had formed, and around the mould, the bacteria had been killed. This was a breakthrough. The next year, on Valentine’s Day, he announced his findings and a few months later published a paper and wrote a report with his findings. Unfortunately, no one took much notice.
It was another ten years before a team at Oxford picked up Fleming’s work and started more development and testing. By the end of the Second World War, 650 billion units of penicillin were being manufactured every month. Infections were being treated effectively, and lives were being saved.
So, this February 14th, if you are tempted to tell your partner that they need to clean up more often, or put things away, or perhaps wipe clean all the surfaces. just pause and think. If it wasn’t for a disorganised, war weary scientist, many of us would not live past 50
Happy Penicillin Day!