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Sir Alexander Fleming, A Life Saver
Penicillin has saved countless human lives since its discovery. Many more derivatives have been made from Penicillin, to combat with human diseases. Ampicillin, Streptomycin, Clarithromycin and all types of penicillin are beta-lactam antibiotics and are used in the treatment of bacterial infections caused by susceptible, usually gram-positive, organisms. Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin.
Sir Alexander Fleming was born at Lochfield near Darvel in Ayrshire, Scotland on August 6th, 1881. He studied at Louden Moor School, Darvel School, and Kilmarnock Academy before moving to London where he attended the Polytechnic. He spent four years in a shipping office before entering St. Mary’s Medical School, London University. He was the youngest of a family of eight, most of them were doctors. One of his brothers suggested him to join medicine. He discovered Penicillin which revolutionized the world of medicine and drug therapy. His Penicillin saved millions of lives and he made a place in human history as a life saver. Below is the rest of story.
(1) Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister Discoveries: –
Pasteur was a French Chemist who discovered that diseases were caused by a living organism called ‘The Germ’. Pasteur scientifically proved that micro-organisms cause different diseases. Louis Pasteur proved his germ theory in the late 19th century.
Joseph Lister an English surgeon found out that germs can be destroyed by sterilization. He applied carbolic acid (known as phenol) to his instruments and to the wounds of patients to kill germs. Sir Joseph Lister Bt. discovered the antiseptic method, in which a germ-killing substance is applied to wounds during an operation. This represented the beginning of modern surgery
(2) The Antiseptic Was Fatal To Human Body Cells: – Soon it was revealed that what killed the germs destroyed also the cells of the human body.
(3) Élie Metchnikoff & The Roll of White Blood Cells: – Metchnikoff discovered that white cells of blood called ‘Leucocytes’ were natural defense against the disease. He showed that a disease was nothing but a fight to death between leukocytes and the germs.
(4) Other Kind of Antiseptic was required: – It was proved that carbolic acid and such other antiseptics did more harm to leucocytes than to the germs. Therefore, something which could kill the germs only and do not harm to human body cells was needed.
(5) Alexander Fleming Appointed at St. Mary’s Hospital: – The problem was still unsolved when in 1906 Alexander Fleming passed his final medical examination and joined the Inoculation Department of St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. He qualified with distinction in 1906 and began his research at St. Mary’s under Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy.
(6) Alexander Fleming became a Lecturer: – Because he gained his final medical degree M.B.B.S.(), from London with Gold Medal in 1906, so he was appointed as a lecturer at St. Mary’s until 1914. He was elected Professor of the School in 1928. He was made emeritus professor of bacteriology in the University of London in 1948.
(7) He Worked in Wright’s Laboratory: – For eight years Fleming worked in Wright’s Laboratory to find out means to aid the Leucocytes in their fight against invading bacteria. In 1914 he joined R.A.M.C and worked on the treatment of infected wounds.
(8) Lister’s antiseptic method was abolished: – By 1914 Lister’s antiseptic method of using chemicals was discarded and heat was used to sterilize instruments and clothing etc. It worked in peace time, but not during war because high explosives caused severe wounds so his procedure of sterilization did not work.
(9) Wounds were treated with Carbolic Acid: – Doctors treated infected wounds by the only method, by chemicals like carbolic acid, iodine etc, they could not destroy all the germs, but something was better than nothing.
(10) Fleming was conducting research with Sir Almroth Wright:- Fleming was working with Sir Almroth Wright who was made a colonel in the A.M.C they started working on the problems of wounds and infections. They objected to the prevalent method of killing Leucocytes along with germs. They believed that something was basically wrong with this method.
(11) Problem remained unsolved until the end of First World War: – At the end of the War the problem remained unsolved. But in 1922 Fleming discovered a natural antiseptic manufactured by the body itself. He was suffering from catarrh and was examining his own nasal secretions when he discovered a substance that destroyed microbes on the culture plate. He called it Lysozyme.
(12) Harmless Antiseptic: – It was the forerunner of penicillin and was the first antiseptic that was harmless to the cells of human body.
(13) Yet no fame for Fleming: – The discovery of Lysozyme did not bring fame to Fleming but became known as Scientist and what had said, attracted attention.
(14) What is Lysozyme? In humans, the lysozyme is a natural enzyme found in human body secretions like human tears, human saliva and mucus. Lysozyme works as a part of human body’s immune system. Lysozyme is a natural form of protection produced by human body. It has an anti bacterial effect. Sir Alexander Fleming first of all discovered the antibacterial action of lysozyme when he treated bacterial cultures with nasal mucus from a patient.
(15) Fleming appointed Professor of Bacteriology: – In 1928 he was appointed Professor of Bacteriology in the University of London.
(16) The Discovery of Penicillin: – He was experimenting on the common germs called Staphylococcus. He found that opening a culture plate, a mould spore got coated on the plate and that contained penicillin. He guessed that the spore of the mould, or fungus came through the window and observed that it almost killed the microbes.
(17) Fleming studied this effect on other kind of Bacteria: – Fleming put aside the work he was doing and tried mould’s effect on other bacteria, some grew right up to it; others, like the staphylococci, stopped short.
(18) Fleming produced Anti-Bacterial Substance called it Penicillin: – Then he produced the anti bacterial substance by plating the mould on a meat broth. It grew on the surface and turned the broth yellow. After a week’s growth the fluid was tested. Fleming had discovered another natural antiseptic after Lysozyme. He called ii Penicillin.
(19) More Research and Experiments: – Further experiments showed that its effect on germs like “staphylococcus” was about there was about three times as strong as carbolic acid. Unlike chemical antiseptics it had no toxic effect at all on leucocytes (The White Cells of Blood).
(20) It was difficult to make Penicillin: – But there remained one obstacle to be solved. Penicillin in its crude forms was extremely unstable and means were needed to concentrate it for its use in the treatment of disease.
(21) Fleming required help of other scientist: – Fleming tried at it, but failed, because he was a bacteriologist and not a chemist or pharmacist. He published his findings and after a long hard struggle, a team headed by Sir Howard Florey and Dr. E.B. Chain succeeded in producing a practical concentration of penicillin.
(22) Oxford team went to The United States: – The first human cases were treated in 1941 and the problem then became a matter of production. One of the Oxford team went to the United States and new methods of manufacturing of Penicillin were discovered, and in 1943 Penicillin reached the Eight Army in Egypt. It revolutionized the healing of war wounds.
(23) Fleming Became Famous: – While Penicillin was being hailed as a wonder drug, nobody knew its discoverer. Sir Almorth Wright told the world through ‘The Times Magazine’about him and thus Fleming became famous. Fleming was a humble man and he kept his concern only with his work. He did not want fame and popularity.
(24) Fellow of Royal Society and Nobel Prize: – He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1943 and knighted in 1944, and awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. Honor was showered on him from all over the world, but Fleming was a humble man. He didn’t want popularity. He acknowledged that such gratitude was not due to him. He said, “I didn’t do anything; Nature makes Penicillin, I just found it.” But Fleming belonged to history in his own life time.
(25) Nobel Lecture of Sir Alexander Fleming: – He delivered his Nobel Lecture on December 11, 1945. He said in his lecture, “I am going to tell you about the early days of penicillin, for this is the part of the penicillin story which earned me a Nobel Award. I have been frequently asked why I invented the name “Penicillin”. I simply followed perfectly orthodox lines and coined a word which explained that the substance.
Penicillin was derived from a plant of the genus Penicillium just as many years ago the word “Digitalin” was invented for a substance derived from the plant Digitalis. To my generation of bacteriologists the inhibition of one microbe by another was commonplace. We were all taught about these inhibitions and indeed it is seldom that an observant clinical bacteriologist can pass a week without seeing in the course of his ordinary work very definite instances of bacterial antagonism.
It seems likely that this fact that bacterial antagonisms were so common and well-known hindered rather than helped the initiation of the study of antibiotics as we know it today. Certainly the older work on antagonism had no influence on the beginning of penicillin. It arose simply from a fortunate occurrence which happened. When I was working on a purely academic bacteriological problem, which had nothing to do with antagonism, or moulds, or antiseptics, or Antibiotics.
In my first publication I might have claimed that I had come to the conclusion, as a result of serious study of the literature and deep thought, that valuable antibacterial substances were made by moulds and that I set out to investigate the problem. That would have been untrue and I preferred to tell the truth that penicillin started as a chance observation. My only merit is that I did not neglect the observation and that I pursued the subject as a bacteriologist. My publication in 1929 was the starting-point of the work of others who developed penicillin especially in the chemical field. Penicillin was not the first antibiotic I happened to discover.
In 1922, I described lysozyme – a powerful antibacterial ferment which had a most extraordinary lytic effect on some bacteria. A thick milky suspension of bacteria could be completely cleared in a few seconds by a fraction of a drop of human tears or egg white. Or if lysozyme-containing material was incorporated in agar filling a ditch cut in an agar plate, and then different microbes were streaked across the plate up to the ditch, it was seen that the growth of some of them would cease at a considerable distance from the gutter.
But unfortunately the microbes which were most strongly acted on by lysozyme were those which do not infect man. My work on lysozyme was continued and later the chemical nature and mode of action was worked out by my collaborators in this Nobel Award – Sir Howard Florey and Dr. Chain. Although, lysozyme has not appeared prominently in practical therapeutics. It was of great use to me as much the same technique which I had developed for lysozyme was applicable when penicillin appeared in 1928. The origin of penicillin was the contamination of a culture plate of staphylococci by a mould. It was noticed that for some distance around the mould colony the staphylococcal colonies had become translucent and evidently lysis was going on. This was an extraordinary appearance and seemed to demand investigation, so the mould was isolated in pure culture and some of its properties were determined.
I have told you of the beginnings of penicillin. How a mould which was not wanted, contaminated one of my culture plates. How it produced an effect which demanded investigation. How I investigated its properties and found that while it had a powerful effect on many of the common microbes which infect us it was apparently quite non-poisonous to animals or to human blood cells. How it was an unstable substance and how we failed to concentrate and stabilize it.
I will now leave Sir Howard Florey to continue the story of penicillin.”
(26) Fleming worked with few resources: – His laboratory was like the backroom of an old-fashioned drug store, but Penicillin could only be discovered in a lab like this.
(27) Fleming Opened a new Window for Research in Bio Science: – Fleming like Pasteur has opened up a whole new world of science. He founded the anti-biotic means growth inhibiting treatment of disease. He provoked others to seek new antibiotics, as a result of which came new drugs made by nature; the best of them is Streptomycin, the most important result of Fleming’s work.
(28) Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology: – He was appointed Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology, University of London in 1948.
(29) Death of a Great Scientist and Humanist: – Sir Alexander Fleming died in 1955 at the age of 73, but his work would never die.
(30) Fleming’s Research Papers: – He published many research papers on bacteriology, immunology, infectious diseases and chemotherapy in his lifetime, which became the foundation of modern research in Medical Science and the treatment of diseases.
(31) Conclusion: – The introduction of Penicillin is an epoch-making event in the history of medicines. New antiseptics and antibiotics have been introduced as derivatives of Penicillin. All the older antiseptics were much more toxic to human body than to bacteria. The ‘sulphonamides’ were much more toxic to bacteria than human organism, but they had some poisonous action on the latter. Here is the Penicillin the doctors have discovered a substance extremely toxic to some bacteria but almost non toxic to man. And it not only stops the growth of the bacteria, it kills them, so it is effective even if the natural protective mechanism of the body is deficient. It is effective tool in pus and in the presence of other substance which inhibit sulphonamide activity. Penicillin has proved itself immensely effective in war causalities and in a great variety of civil illnesses. Perhaps the most striking results have been in venereal diseases; with penicillin treatment like 80 % recoveries.
Penicillin has made medicine and surgery easier in many directions. The spectacular success of penicillin has stimulated the most intensive research into other antibiotics and more drugs as gramicidine or tyrothricin and streptomycin. Bacteriologists, Mycologists, Microbiologists, Biochemists and Pharmacists all are investigating into all sorts of moulds and bacteria to see if they produce antibiotics substances. The chemist concentrates or purifies the active substance, and the experimental pathologist tests the concentration for activity and toxicity. There are teams of workers who are investigating every bacillus and every mould in the collections which exist in various countries. It seems likely that in next few years a combination of antibiotics with different anti-bacterial spectra will furnish a drug from which few and fewer infecting bacteria will escape. This whole new window of medical research was opened by Sir Alexander Fleming.
(32) Alexander Fleming Quotes:-
(I) “It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject; the details may be worked out by a team, but the prime idea is due to enterprise, thought, and perception of an individual.” – Sir Alexander Fleming
(II) “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” – Sir Alexander Fleming
(III) “In my first publication I might have claimed that I had come to the conclusion, as a result of serious study of the literature and deep thought, that valuable antibacterial substances were made by moulds and that I set out to investigate the problem. That would have been untrue and I preferred to tell the truth that penicillin started as a chance observation. My only merit is that I did not neglect the observation and that I pursued the subject as a bacteriologist. My publication in 1929 was the starting-point of the work of others who developed penicillin especially in the chemical field.” – Sir Alexander Fleming
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