What Really Happened: Fleming's Penicillin Discovery

The Authorea Team

Penicillin: medicine's greatest discovery. The super-substance became the world's first antibiotic and made many lethal bacterial infections a thing of the past. The man credited with its discovery is Alexander Fleming, who received the Nobel prize (among numerous other honors and distinctions) for his work. What started as an accident--spores floating in through an open window-- turned into a revolution, completely changing the nature of medicine. Incredible. But is that really what happened?
Although Fleming found the potential of penicillin in 1928, he did not put it into practice. He studied its capabilities and knew it had the potential for greatness, but he never actually realized it himself: Fleming had difficulty finding a way to take penicillin out of the petri dish and put it to use in live specimens. How, then, did penicillin come to be known as the greatest medical development in history? What really happened--two scientists named Howard Florey and Ernst Chain developed penicillin as the functional antibiotic we know today.
If Florey and Chain were responsible for the groundbreaking development, why do we credit Fleming with the miracle of antibiotics? All three won the Nobel prize together, but it's rare to hear more than Fleming's name mentioned in conjunction with penicillin. Reports say that Florey was too humble and did not want recognition for his work. In fact, he thought that perhaps his drug was too effective and created a larger problem of population growth. Florey didn't enjoy talking to the publicists who wanted to report on his work; Fleming did. Fleming wasn't self-seeking or vain, but rather was unable to turn reporters away. The credit goes largely to Fleming because talked and Florey/Chain didn't.