Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) was a Scottish biologist and pharmacologist. His primary achievement was the discovery of the enzyme lysozyme in 1922, and with the Australian researcher Howard Florey the discovery of the antibiotic, in 1928, penicillin from the fungus Penicillum notatum. For this discovery they were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology in 1945.
Fleming had studied to become a medical doctor but somehow wound up a medical researcher. This was during the era when Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of diseases was in the air. The race was on to discover germs that caused diseases and figure out a way to prevent them from causing human beings diseases. Edward Jenner made great strides in showing how smallpox is caused and coming up with vaccination for it.
Fleming was aware that many diseases were caused by bacteria and that there are many types of bacteria. During the First World War, as an army physician, he saw many soldiers die from infected wounds, infections caused by assorted bacteria and the inadequacy of the antiseptics employed on wounds.
After the First World War, Fleming dedicated his life to the search for anti bacteria agents. It would seem that antiseptics would do it but antiseptics not only killed germs but destroyed the patient’s immunological system. Moreover, bacteria that had penetrated deep into the human body could not be killed by the antiseptics administered on wounds. Antiseptics killed the bacteria on the surface of the wounds and also killed the human antibodies sent to fight those germs while not killing the germs embedded deep inside the body.
In searching for ways to kill bacteria, in 1922 Fleming discovered the enzyme, lysozyme, the body’s natural antibiotic.
His seminal discovery is his accidental discovery of antibacterial penicillin. Apparently, he was working on a variety of fungi and had left some of them on peltry dishes and left them in his laboratory while he went on vacation. Upon returning from his leave, he noticed the fungal growth on the peltry dishes and threw the dishes away. When a visitor came by and asked him what he was doing Fleming retrieved some of the dishes to show him about his work, and thereafter noticed that there was a part of the fungus where there was no growth (of bacteria). He proceeded to extract some mould from the area where there was no bacterial growth and tested it. What he discovered was that apparently the antiseptic he was using in washing his peltry diseases had sterilized a portion of the dishes hence weakened or killed the bacteria that otherwise would have grown there.
In effect, the presence of weakened bacteria has prevented similar bacteria from causing the growth of bacteria in that portion of the peltry dishes. He surmised what happened, that a portion of the dish had developed immunization from bacterial infection. He studied the bacteria involved and realized that it was penicillin hence gave the antibacterial medication he had just discovered the name penicillin.
Fleming tried but did not discover a way to manufacture penicillin in mass quantity. It is here that Flory and Chain came in.
Flory and Chain managed to show how to manufacture the weakened bacteria that when injected in the human body acted as an immune to the infection of the life bacteria. Their mass produced penicillin were injected into soldiers during the Second World War and immunized them from bacterial infections that would have killed them.
In time it was discovered that bacteria does develop immune to antibacterial medications. This is most likely to happen if not enough of penicillin is given.
Since Fleming, a lot has been learned about the body’s immune system and the nature of bacteria, virus and fungus. A lot of progress has been made in developing antibiotics.
Fleming remains the pioneer in the development of antibiotics.
Alexander Fleming. On a Remarkable Bacteriolytic Element Found In The Tissues and Secretions. Proc Roy Soc Ser B 1922; 93: 306-17
Stroud and Sutton. Penicillin Man: Alexander Fleming and the Antibiotic Revolution. Brown Kevin, 2004