Monday, 29 September 2008

WRONG: Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin

Bacteria are creatures consisting of a single cell, usually about a thousandth of a millimetre wide. They reproduce themselves in the body, or indeed anywhere warm, moist and nutritious, though there are some astonishingly resilient germs out there (not to mention in there). Deinococcus radiodurans (“terrible berry that resists radiation”), for example, can survive a dose of radiation 500 times stronger than that which would kill a human. Geothermobacterium ferrireducens prefers boiling temperatures, while leifsonia aurea likes nothing more than a sub-zero chill.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming famously noticed small areas of inhibited growth in a dish of staphylococcus, and closer inspection revealed the active agent to be penicillium mould, similar to the one that makes an encounter with gorgonzola cheese so memorable. After three years, however, Fleming gave up on his penicillium studies, believing the organism couldn’t exist long enough in the human body to be effective. Three years later he tried again, but still had difficulty persuading other researchers to help modify the mould for human use.

It wasn’t till 1942 that a patient was successfully treated with penicillin. Oxford University’s Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley were the first to turn the mould into a medicine, though during the war they had to travel to Peoria, Illinois to find a lab that could produce it on a workable scale (their seed mould came from a mouldy melon on the local streetmarket).

All this, however, overlooks the work of three other scientists.

A Costa Rican toxicologist rejoicing in the name of Clodomiro Picado Twight reported his discovery of penicillium’s anti-bacterial properties to the Paris Academy Of Sciences over a series of experiments dating from 1915, long before Fleming. His work was largely ignored, and his original manuscripts were only discovered and published in 2000.

Earlier than Twight, Ernest Duchesne, a French doctor, noticed that Arab stable boys encouraged the growth of mould on saddles to help heal sores on the horses. At the age of 23, he conducted experiments that proved strains of penicillium would cure animals infected with typhus and submitted his research to the Institut Pasteur in 1897. In what was clearly to become something of a habit among French academics, the institute ignored him completely.

Even Duchesne, however, wasn’t the first. As early as 1877 the eminent British physicist John Tyndall had noticed penicillium’s effect on bacteria. While demonstrating Pasteur’s theory of the existence of microbes, he observed in one experiment that, “The penicillium was exquisitely beautiful. In every case where the mould was thick and coherent, the bacteria died.”[5] But being a physicist rather than a physician, Tyndall gave no further thought to his observation.

Fleming, Florey and Ernst Chain shared the Nobel prize in 1945 for their work on creating the therapeutic form of penicillin. Yet resistant strains of bacteria had already emerged two years later. Thanks, Darwin!

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