Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin through involuntary forgetfulness

76 years ago the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming won the Nobel Prize of Physiology and Medicine, shared with the biochemist Ernst Chain and the pharmacologist Howard Florey, for their great contributions to the development of antibiotics with the discovery and development of penicillin.

In September 1928, while studying colonies of staphylococci, bacteria found in our body that, in some cases, can be pathogenic, Fleming left behind some Petri dishes with the bacteria for a few days, after going on vacation. When he returned, he found that the samples had been contaminated with foreign particles. However, he found something that caught his attention: in one of the plates there were parts in which the bacteria had disappeared. After analyzing the sample, he discovered that this plate had entered a fungus with antibacterial qualities. Later this fungus would be known as Penicillium notatum.

This fungus secreted a substance that killed bacteria, which it called penicillin. Fleming began to put the Penicillium notatum in different crops with bacteria, and in all of them they died. However, the real difficulty was to achieve apply this discovery in medicine to save human lives.

Nobel Prize shared with Ernst Chain and Howard Florey, in 1945.

After testing applying pure penicillin in rabbits and mice, Fleming discovered that this substance served to cure bacterial diseases. However, due to the difficulty involved in producing penicillin purely, Fleming’s discovery only remained a great discovery for science that had not been able to change medicine in practice.

Years later, in 1935, the German Ernst chain and the australian Howard Florey assembled a research team to finish the work that Fleming started: they set out to study penicillin and eventually make it for his mass distribution.

The manufacture of penicillin became of vital importance with the arrival of the Second World War to cure the infections in the wounds of the soldiers. But its massive distribution still implied a great investment economic, and more in an economy weakened by war.

The pharmaceutical companies The British were not in a position to afford such a challenge, therefore, in 1941, Chain and Florey decided to travel to the United States for financial support. There, the North American company Pfizer, in 6 months, put a plant of 14 fermenters to produce pure penicillin.

Finally, during the famous Normandy Landing, an episode in World War II that started the Battle of Normandy from which the Allies liberated the Western European territories occupied by Nazi Germany, the Allied soldiers landed in France with penicillin to use if they were injured. Since its mass distribution, penicillin managed to save many, many lives by to avoid that the infection of wounds led people to death.

Alexander Fleming 20211111
The discovery of penicillin saved thousands of lives during World War II and until today.

Fleming was the first to realize that, over time, bacteria could begin to become resistant to penicillin, and that penicillin would no longer be useful at some point. When a group of bacteria is exposed to an antibiotic, some will survive and, by reproducing, will pass on their genes to new generations, who will also be resistant to the antibiotic. That is why it is necessary avoid using antibiotics if they are not prescribed, to delay this process.

In addition to penicillin, in 1922 Fleming discovered the lysozyme, a substance naturally present in our body and that has antimicrobial power. Fleming managed to isolate it, but it had little potential as a drug. This discovery is considered a great step forward in the search for antibacterial substances.

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Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin through involuntary forgetfulness