Once upon a time—or so the story goes—back in 1928, there was an absent-minded professor. After a month-long holiday, he returned to his lab and his research on the influenza virus, which he had somewhat clumsily stacked up on one end of his workbench during his absence. To his surprise, he discovered that some of his research had developed a sort of liquidy mold. Not only that, the mold had killed some of the cultures that he had been testing as part of his research on enzymes. It got his attention.
“That’s odd,” he said, for he had never seen anything quite like it. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he hadn’t found another enzyme, he had discovered something else. The mold was eventually identified as Penicillium notatum, and the “mold juice” was the basis for the discovery of penicillin.
Alexander Fleming was the untidy professor whose cluttered lab gave up the secret of the mold. He reporting his findings, but put the work aside in 1931 without realizing that it might have a therapeutic value.
Several years later, working with Fleming’s discovery as a foundation, two other scientists, Howard Florey and his co-worker Ernst Chain, isolated and purified penicillin as a medicine, ushering in the antibiotic age. Before penicillin, blood poisoning contracted from a scratch could take a life. Infections like pneumonia had no effective treatment. Penicillin changed all of that. The presence of penicillin on D-day and in military hospitals during World War II changed battlefield medicine. Healthcare itself was radically changed. Fleming, Florey, and Chain had invented the field of antibiotics, and they shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1945. Penicillin has become the most widely used antibiotic in the world.
Alexander Fleming was born on August 6, 1881—134 years ago this week. While we may not remember his name as readily as Louis Pasteur or Jonas Salk, his accidental discovery, made while he was looking for something else, has saved millions upon millions of lives. “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 revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”
Most of us don’t go to work in the morning saying, “Today I’ll discover the next penicillin.” Even Fleming admitted that his most important discovery was an accident. But we do come to our work each day with the mission of saving and improving lives. Within the realm of our responsibility, what might we find that could make a real difference in the lives of the people in our care? What discoveries lie just beyond our grasp, our understanding? How will life surprise us today?
I’m grateful for healthcare heroes like Alexander Fleming, and for being a part of a community of individuals who value the mission of improving lives—people who are open and aware that even in the everyday tasks, surprising discoveries for our understanding of the world are real possibilities.