There is much myth that surrounds the story of the discovery of penicillin.

  Flemings Fluff, which drifted in through a window near Paddington

station, belongs, with Archimedes interrupted bath,

Newtons apple and James Watts kettle-on-the-hob, to the great scientific legends.


The Life Savers by Ritchie Calder


    The popular story goes that Alexander Fleming was carrying out an experiment on bacteria and when he left for the weekend a technician left a window open and by some chance a spore drifted in and contaminated one of his pertri dishes, when he came back a mold had grown and was destroying a colony of staphylococci. In fact this couldnt of happened due to the fact that the labs windows where shut permanently. In fact Fleming had prepared a colony of staphylococci for research and went on a few days leave when he returned one of the covers had shifted and the mold had grown. Fleming was interested in his discovery and published the results, the report was not met by much interest and in fact Fleming did not understand what he had discovered and was not able to isolate the material due to its high reactivity.

Fleming's original petri dish

            Its was only by luck that the research into penicillin was taken up again. In the 1930s a research group at Oxford University lead by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain began to investigate the properties of naturally occurring antibacterial substances. As there research developed they picked up on Flemings discovery, with a $5000 dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation they began to try and isolate the active ingredient. Using a method known as freeze-drying not available in Flemings time they were able to obtain a product a million times more potent than Flemings crude material. By 1939 they were treating infections in mice and by 1942 the product had been successfully tested on humans. Research by Coghill in America enabled penicillin to be produced a wide scale and by 1944 it was being produced on a wide scale for civilian use.