To more colorful colleagues, the bristle-haired Scottish microbe hunter working in a cluttered laboratory at London's St. Mary's Hospital seemed downright dull. But he was nothing if not dogged. He was 47 years old, and he had spent 20 years trying to find something to kill the microbes that cause infections in man, especially in wounds. To no avail; he found a substance in human tears that killed some germs, but not the important ones.
It seemed just another minor setback when, on a September morning in 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming looked at a little glass dish in which he had been growing some staphylococci (the germs that flourish in boils) and saw that the culture was "spoiled." A kind of claim-jumping mold had moved in and started its own colonies among the staph. A less observant scientist, or one more fussy about keeping a tidy laboratory, would have thrown out the adulterated growth. But Fleming's keen blue eye noticed a peculiarity: around each patch of mold growth was a bare ring where the staph had not been overgrown or crowded out but had nevertheless been killed. He deduced that the mold secreted a substance that killed this breed of staphylococci, at least.
Unseen Magic. Dr. Fleming scraped off some of the mold with a loop of platinum wire and grew the stuff by itself. In the fluid in which it multiplied was a something that killed several kinds of microbes. The mold was a variety of penicillium, and Fleming called the unseen but magical substance penicillin. He wrote about it in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. One man paid close heed: Chemist Harold Raistrick extracted a crude form of penicillin, but was advised by senior doctors that it had no future as a medicine for humansit was too unstable. Fleming's mold was forgotten.
Then, in the mid-1930s, came the sulfa drugs and a revival of interest in germ-killing chemicals. An Oxford research team composed of Pathologist (now Sir) Howard Florey and Chemist Ernst Chain dug up Fleming's moldy paper and did the tests all over again. By 1941 they got enough penicillin to prolong the lives of two patients. World War II had come to Europe and was threatening the U.S.: men, money and materials were lavished on the perfection and manufacture of penicillin.
Undoubted Queen. Penicillin was not technically the first of the antibiotics, but it was the first to make medical sense, let alone history. While Alexander Fleming went on puttering in his littered laboratory, interrupted often to accept awards and honors (most notable: a knighthood from George VI and, with Florey and Chain, a Nobel Prize), other antibiotics poured from researchers' vials. Some, like streptomycin for tuberculosis, proved to have sharply defined powers that penicillin lacked; others complement it with a spectrum of antibacterial activity.