On the 28th September 1928, the bacteriologist Alexander Fleming laid for the foundation for a revolution in modern medicine when he discovered the world’s first antibiotic. Penicillin – which Fleming originally referred to as ‘mould juice’ – was initially met with little attention or enthusiasm by the medical establishment. However, the early 1940s saw research by Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford raise the profile of the drug and begin mass-production to treat Allied casualties in the Second World War.
Fleming was always very modest about his contribution to the development of penicillin, and often referred to the ‘Fleming myth’ surrounding the drug. However, as the first person to identify the antibiotic properties of the active substance, Fleming earned the right to name it. He made the discovery after returning to his laboratory after a family holiday and finding that a petri dish containing staphylococci bacteria had been contaminated with an unidentified fungus. The bacteria around the fungus had been destroyed, whereas bacteria that was further away survived. It was at this point that he famously uttered the words, “That’s funny” and began investigating the fungus.
Over time Fleming identified that the fungus came from the genus penicillium, and laboratory tests indicated that it could be used to destroy a variety of disease-causing bacteria. However, despite his best efforts he was never able to cultivate the fungus in any significant quantity or isolate the active ingredient. The work of subsequent scientists was therefore vital to the development of the antibiotic, although without Fleming there would have been no fungus to investigate.