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Fleming, Alexander

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Alexander Fleming

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Alexander Fleming

(August 6, 1881 - March 11, 1955)
Born in Scotland
Year of Discovery: 1928

Discovered Penicillin - the Mold That Turned into the  First Antibiotic

Fleming possessed a naturally curious mind and was a brilliant researcher. But, perhaps caught up in his own thoughts, he was often careless when it came to conditions within his lab. Fortunately, rather than being a problem, his lack of organization led to one of the most significant discoveries in modern medicine. After returning from vacation, Fleming discovered some culture plates he'd forgotten to properly store prior to his trip. The plates were ruined - infected with a fungus, except for a small ring where the fungus wouldn't grow. This immediately captured Fleming's attention and he got to work. He isolated the organism responsible for prohibiting the growth of the fungus, and identified it as being from the penicillium genus. He named it penicillin. He had discovered the first antibiotic, which would eventually be credited with saving over 80 million lives.

Today commonplace minor infections are of little concern and are easily treated. But, prior to the discovery of penicillin, simple conditions could be a death sentence. Fleming's discovery of penicillin laid the foundation that allowed others to develop the "wonder drug" that has since saved millions of lives. It was from a carefully preserved strain of Fleming's penicillin that Howard Florey and his team completed their work over a decade later.

Fleming was investigating Staphylococcus, a common bacteria, when he made his discovery. His further investigation revealed penicillin was capable of fighting all gram-positive bacteria, including those causing scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis, and diphtheria. It does so by attaching to the cell walls of gram-positive bacteria and interfering with their ability to produce new cell walls when they divide. His penicillin was remarkably strong, able to contain Staphylococcus even when diluted 800 times. But, the penicillin was also extremely difficult to isolate and produce in quantity. After a series of inconclusive experiments, Fleming abandoned his pursuit of penicillin - but he carefully maintained the active strains he had developed, one of which became the starting point for the breakthrough research conducted by Florey and his team.

It seems fitting Florey's team completed their work amidst World War II. Fleming had similarly fought to save the lives of soldiers in 1914, during the war between Britain and Germany. He was convinced antiseptics were ineffective in protecting wounds from infection and sought a better means of treatment. His discovery of penicillin would provide that relief for tens of thousands of World War II soldiers.



Introduction by Tim Anderson


Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Key Contributors
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Similar Scientists
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


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Time Magazine
profiles on the 100 most important people of the 20th Century:

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U.S. News story on Fleming's "accidental" discovery of penicillin:

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research


Key Contributors
The Team
Explore other scientists who furthered this lifesaving advance.

Lifesavers: Penicillin

Howard Florey
The real brain behind the discovery of penicillin.
Ernst Chain
He refined penicillin, allowing for mass production of the world's first antibiotic.
Norman Heatley
He engineered the methods to grow sufficient quantities of penicillin for testing and refinement.

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist



Similar Scientists

Explore these other scientists who have something significant in common with this science hero.
Science Heroes Born in Scotland

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Alexander Fleming

Discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin

Born August 6, 1881, at Lochfield farm in East Ayrshire, Scotland - Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin.

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James Black

Developed beta blockers

Born July 14, 1924, in Scotland - Black developed beta blockers to treat heart rhythm disorders and high blood pressure.

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Joseph Lister

Developed the antiseptic surgical technique

Born April 5, 1827, in England (Lister gets "honorable mention," as his discovery was made in Scotland) - Lister developed the antiseptic surgical technique, ushering in the era of sterile surgical practices.

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Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist

Hantula, Richard. Alexander Fleming: By Richard Hantula (Trailblazers of the Modern World) (Ages 4-8) World Almanac Books, 2003.

Tames, Richard. Alexander Fleming (Lifetimes Series) (Childrens) Franklin Watts, 1990.

Kaye, J. Leonard. Life Of Alexander Flemming (Pioneers in Health and Medicine) (Ages 9-12) 21st Century, 1997.


Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science