Medicine: 20TH Century Seer

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Medical news last week vied with news of the days before invasion. Under the aspect of eternity, the medical news might even be more important than the military. WPB announced that the wonder drug penicillin, for three years practically a monopoly of the Army & Navy, was now being manufactured in such quantity that it can be issued to civilians. Some 1,000 hospitals will be allowed to buy generous monthly quotas for distribution to patients and other hospitals as they see fit.*

For impatient sufferers (many of them dying), the good news came none too soon. Penicillin (sometimes rhymes with villain, sometimes with whistle in) is the best treatment for all staphylococcic infections, all hemolytic streptococcic infections, clostridia infections, pneumococcic infections (of the lining of skull, spinal cord, lung and heart surfaces), pneumococcic pneumonia that sulfa drugs will not cure, all gonococcic infections (including all gonorrhea that sulfa drugs will not cure). Diseases against which penicillin is effective but not fully tested: syphilis, actinomycosis, bacterial endocarditis.

The Scientific Vision. The man who made possible this incalculable alleviation of human suffering is Dr. Alexander Fleming, discoverer of the antibacterial effect of the mold from which penicillin is made. He is a short (5 ft. 7 in.), gentle, retiring Scot with somewhat dreamy blue eyes, fierce white hair and a mulling mind, which, when it moves, moves with the thrust of a cobra. Until time's solvent has dissolved the human slag, it will be hard to say who the great men of the 20th Century are. But Dr. Alexander Fleming is almost certainly one of them.

For he belongs in the tradition of the scientific seers, which includes Galileo watching the swing of a lamp in the Cathedral of Pisa and deducing from it the law of the pendulum, and Isaac Newton watching the fall of an apple and deducing from it the law of gravity. For thousands of years men looked at the cryptogamic mold called Penicillium notatum, but Dr. Fleming was the first to see its cryptic meaning. His discernment, restoring to science the creative vision which it has sometimes been held to lack, also restored health to millions of men living and unborn.

The story of his discovery is legendary. Back in 1928 Alexander Fleming, M.B., B.S., F.R.C.S.,* taught bacteriology at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School, University of London. In his small, old-fashioned laboratory, he grew staphylococci in petri plates (flat glass culture dishes). One day he found that mold had spoiled one of his cultures. Staphylococcus grew on only half of the plate. A blue-green mold spotted, but did not cover, the other half.

He noticed that the mold had cleared a wide, bacteria-free area between itself and the staphylococci—perhaps had killed them. He did not destroy the moldy culture.

It was a great moment in the drama of medicine: the moment when Dr. Faustus opens Nostradamus' secret book, comprehends in a flash the sign of the macrocosm, and is able at last to conjure up the Earth Spirit. But that was not the way Dr. Fleming reported his epochal perception. Said he: "I was sufficiently interested in the antibacterial substance produced by the mold to pursue the subject."

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