4. The Sloppiness That Revolutionized Medicine
Alexander Fleming served in the Army Medical Corp during World War I. There, he observed the deaths of many soldiers from uncontrollable infections. Antiseptics were used to fight infections, but they often did more harm than good. Fleming conducted research, which showed that antiseptics did nothing to stop the proliferation of anaerobic bacteria in deep wounds. Initially rejected, Fleming, plugged on through his research and kept at it, until war’s end and beyond. One day in 1922, while battling a cold, Fleming transferred some of his snot to a Petri dish. A slob, he then placed the dish on his cluttered desk, where he forgot it for a couple of weeks. When Fleming finally remembered and examined it, the Petri dish was full of bacterial colonies. However, the microscope revealed that one area of snot was free of bacteria.
Further examination revealed that it was due to the presence of an enzyme, which he called lysozyme. The enzyme had some antimicrobial properties. That set the stage for the discovery of penicillin. In 1928, Fleming, still a lab slob, left an uncovered Petri dish next to an open window. It became contaminated with fungus spores. When he checked it under the microscope, Fleming discovered that the bacteria near the fungus were dying. He managed to isolate the fungus and discovered that it was effective against numerous pathogens. It affected diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, gonorrhea, and many more. Thus, penicillin was discovered. As Fleming put it: “I did not discover penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident“.