• Asher Engelberg

The Accidental History of Penicillin

Updated: Aug 3



The name Alexander Fleming has become synonymous with medical discovery, Penicillin (the first antibiotic ever), and modern medicine as we know it. But to many, the invention of Penicillin brings to mind the picture of a mad scientist with long, messy, white hair in a secret dungeon lab, mixing crazy chemicals. However, the story of Fleming and his research is actually a bit crazier than that.

Fleming was born to a family in Scotland in the late 19th century, yet he pursued an education at the Regent Street Polytechnic school in London. Not being able to afford medical school following his youth education, Fleming started to work in a shipping office. Bittersweet fortune struck the Fleming family: sadly, Fleming's uncle passed away, but the money Fleming inherited allowed him to pursue his medical education at St. Mary’s Medical School at London University.

Fleming then served in the London Scottish regiment of the Territorial Army as a marksman, and he was very adept at it. So adept, in fact, that St. Mary’s, the school he earned his degree from, persuaded him to pursue a research-based career, so that he could join the school’s rifle club; a career in surgery and general practice, meanwhile, would have required him to leave St. Mary’s. A few years later, with the outbreak of World War One, Fleming served as a Captain in the Medical Corps. Tending to soldiers’ wounds, Fleming was more engrossed with the way that infection from the trenches affected the soldiers, rather than gunshot wounds and battle wounds. He saw that the current system of treatment, antiseptics, didn’t actually help patients, and decided to research other possible treatments.

In 1928, Fleming conducted research on staphylococcal bacteria, a common bacteria that causes minor skin infections and rashes. By accident, Fleming left an uncovered Petri Dish with staphylococcal bacteria next to an open window, and he noticed that mold colonies had started to grow on the petri dish. Miraculously, the bacteria next to the mold spores were dying. Fleming did further research on the mold that had grown and determined that the Penicillium genus was the reason that bacteria were getting killed off. In fact, he concluded that the same Penicillium genus kills all gram-positive bacteria, a type of bacteria with thick cell walls. The rest is history.

The use of antibiotic medicine to treat infections has greatly altered the course of modern medicine and human history itself. Previously incurable diseases such as strep throat, scarlet fever, diphtheria, gonorrhea, tonsillitis, and many more are rendered mere inconveniences by this "wonder drug." The discovery of Penicillin has saved countless lives, and Fleming was recognized for his discovery with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945, and a special place in medical history.

Unfortunately, some people are allergic to Penicillin, meaning they can't reap the benefits of the medicine. Substitutes do exist, but are often unsatisfactory.

“If a person has penicillin allergy in their medical record, alternative antibiotics are used," Dr. Blanka Kaplan, director of the Drug Allergy and Desensitization Center at Northwell Health, said to Healthline. "[They] are typically stronger, broader spectrum, and can cause more adverse effects and antibiotic resistance, not to mention [being] more expensive."

Luckily, penicillin allergies are less prevalent than they may seem. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, although 10% of the United States has claimed that they have been subject to a penicillin allergic reaction, in reality, only 1% really have. Furthermore, of this 1%, 80% will outgrow the allergy within 10 years. But, as the saying goes, you are better safe than sorry, so please avoid penicillin if you believe yourself to be allergic, unless your allergist tells you otherwise.