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The Mold Alexander Fleming Made that Produced the First Antibiotic was Kept Frozen Since 1945

Sir Alexander Flemming was a Scottish physician and microbiologist popularly known for discovering the first and most widely used antibiotic; penicillin. But did you know that the original mold Fleming used to create penicillin is still kept frozen?

Alexander Fleming’s mold, which created the first antibiotic, penicillin, has been kept frozen since 1945. Its genomes are still used for regrowth today.

The True Story Of Penicillin

In September of 1928, penicillin was discovered in London. Dr. Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist on duty at St. Mary’s Hospital, arrived from a summer vacation in Scotland to find a dirty lab bench and much more.

Fleming discovered that a mold called Penicillium notatum had infiltrated his Petri dishes while investigating several colonies of Staphylococcus aureus. He was astounded to find that the mold prevented the staphylococci from growing normally after carefully placing the plates under his microscope.

It took a few more weeks for Fleming to grow enough of the demanding mold to be able to confirm his findings. His findings were astounding: there was a component in the Penicillium mold that hindered bacterial growth and, more importantly, could be used to battle infectious diseases.

Anne Miller, near death at New Haven Hospital in Connecticut after miscarrying and having an infection that led to blood poisoning, became the first civilian patient to be successfully treated with penicillin fourteen years later, in March 1942.

But there is much more to this historical sequence of events.

Fleming didn’t have the laboratory resources or the chemistry expertise at St. Mary’s to isolate the active ingredient in penicillium mold juice, purify it, determine which germs it was effective against, or how to use it. 

Dr. Howard Florey, a pathology professor and director of Oxford University’s Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, was given the job. He was an absolute marvel at directing a vast laboratory full of intelligent but eccentric scientists, and he was a master at extracting research money from tight-fisted officials.  (Source: Public Broadcasting Service

Developing The Penicillin

Florey, who had long been interested in how bacteria and mold destroy each other naturally, stumbled discovered Fleming’s research on the Penicillium mold while leafing through some past issues of The British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1938. Florey and his colleagues soon gathered in his well-equipped laboratory. They chose to investigate the science behind penicillium’s antibacterial effect, as Fleming put it.

Dr. Ernst Chain, a Jewish German émigré, was one of Florey’s sharpest staff. Chain was a brusque, aggressive, and sensitive man who was often at odds with Florey about who should be credited with inventing penicillin. Despite their struggles, they developed a series of penicillium-mold culture fluid extracts.

Their experiments focused on a group of 50 mice infected with fatal streptococcus during the summer of 1940. Overwhelming sepsis claimed the lives of half of the mice. Penicillin injections saved the lives of others.

Florey realized at that point that he had enough promising information to test the medication on humans. However, the difficulty of producing enough pure penicillin to cure patients persisted. Despite efforts to boost mold culture yields, it took 2,000 liters of mold culture fluid to make enough pure penicillin to fix a single instance of sepsis in a person.

Albert Alexander, 48, an Oxford police constable, gave the first test case in September 1940. Working in his rose garden, Alexander nicked his face. The streptococci and staphylococci-infected scrape spread to his eyes and scalp. Despite being admitted to the Radcliffe Infirmary and given sulfa medicines, Alexander’s infection deteriorated, resulting in smoldering abscesses in his eye, lungs, and shoulder. Florey and Chain overheard the horrific case at a dinner party and promptly requested the Radcliffe doctors whether they might use their purified penicillin.

Alexander began to feel better after five days of shots. However, Chain and Florey lacked sufficient pure penicillin to clear the infection, and Alexander died as a result. (Source: Public Broadcasting Service)

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