“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”
Thus recalled the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming on his discovery of penicillin – the most important medical event of the 20th century – eighty-seven years ago on this day. The world’s first antibiotic was indeed nothing less than revolutionary; penicillin has saved more lives than any other single drug, conquering some of humankind’s most ancient scourges – pneumonia, syphilis, gonorrhoea, diphtheria, gangrene, scarlet fever, battle wounds and childbirth infections that had for so long killed millions indiscriminately.
The chain of events leading to this world-changing discovery was so improbable that it’s become one of the greatest legends in the history of science. Before departing for a two-week vacation from his research position at London’s St Mary’s Hospital, Fleming had prepared an experiment of several Petri dishes containing a strain of staphylococcus bacteria. Meanwhile, one floor beneath him, a colleague was growing the species Penicillium notatum to advance his studies on moulds. This mould became airborne, traveled upstairs and accidentally contaminated Fleming’s bacteria experiment. When he returned from his holiday, Fleming noticed a clear halo surrounding a yellow-green growth in one of the Petri dishes.
“I had no suspicion that I had got a clue to the most powerful therapeutic substance yet used to defeat bacterial infections in the human body,” Fleming later recalled. “But the appearance of that culture plate was such that I thought it should not be neglected.”
Fleming correctly deduced that the mould had inhibited the growth of the bacteria. But despite several experiments, he was unable to isolate the material due to its high reactivity. In frustration, he abandoned his research – publishing his initial findings in the 1929 British Journal of Experimental Pathology to little fanfare. The discovery remained in relative obscurity until the outbreak of World War II, when a team of doctors at Oxford University – led by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley – resumed Fleming’s preliminary work and eventually developed the world’s first viable antibiotic. Pharmaceutical companies in America rushed to produce mass quantities of this “miracle drug” before the close of the war and, by D-Day on June 6th 1944, enough was available to treat all the bacterial infections that broke out among the troops. Fleming was hailed a World Hero, and he, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945.
Penicillin’s success ushered in an age of life-saving antibiotics. For untold millions, bacterial illnesses were no longer dreaded killers. With that fact alone, declared the eminent British physician Lord Horder upon Alexander Fleming’s death in 1955, the discoverer of penicillin “conferred a benefit upon humanity that is quite incalculable.”
But, as with most extraordinary advances, humankind has found a way to royally fuck it up. The widespread and rampant abuse and misuse of penicillin has resulted in bacteria developing resistance to all antibiotics – a potentially catastrophic future problem that Alexander Fleming himself anticipated and warned against: “The greatest possibility of evil in self-medication is the use of too-small doses, so that instead of clearing up infection the microbes are educated to resist penicillin…”
Spurred on by a greedy multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry, antibiotics have been massively over-prescribed and misused – doled out routinely to children with (non-bacterial) colds “just in case” – weakening our immune systems and propagating “super bugs”. In 1946, 88% of Staphylococcus infections could be cured by penicillin. Today, it’s less than 5%. The obscene use of antibiotics in agricultural animals through water or food troughs to promote growth and expedite weight gain has further hastened the development of resistant bacterial infections in humans. Almost all known bacterial infections are becoming resistant to antibiotics – even tuberculosis is once again threatening to kill.
In less than a century since Fleming’s revolutionary discovery, and in only sixty-eight years since its availability to the masses, the antibiotic age is already in danger of having run its course.