Penicillin Playbill: How Alexander Fleming Discovered Lysozymes and Penicillin
Updated: Jun 24
Alexander Fleming goes down as the main man who discovered penicillin, revolutionizing modern medicine. However, as he very wisely said
And it was truly an accident, but that’s not to say this man wasn’t intelligent or a great scientist. But if you ask me, I think he’s a wicked lucky SOB who’s always just going with the flow.
The Early Years of Alexander Fleming
Alexander Fleming was born on August 6, 1881, in Scotland. Like so many, he originally wanted to be a doctor, probably because he didn’t know how cool microbes were yet. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he couldn’t afford it, and so he worked in a shipping office for four years. Eventually, an opportunity arose from tragedy, as so often it does, as our young Fleming found himself with a sizable inheritance at the cost of one lost uncle. So it goes.
So he was off to St. Mary’s Medical School where he remained for most of his life. He was a student, researcher, lecturer, and professor. He originally wanted to leave St. Mary’s and become a surgeon, but the science gods would never allow it; no they found a way to keep Fleming at St. Mary’s with a little stroke of his ego. It turns out that Fleming had become a highly valued member of St. Mary’s Medical school, but not for the reasons you may think.
He was a good shot and a valuable asset to the rifle club. So the captain of the rifle club convinced Fleming that research was where it was at.
You don’t want to be a surgeon, it's a bloody mess and people die. But research, now there’s a place you can truly shine, Fleming. Oh, and I want to introduce you to Sir Almroth Wright, a great shot, but not as good as you Fleming, and he’s a great researcher and looking for someone just like you to join his lab and to join our rifle club.
And so, Fleming stayed at St. Mary’s and continued to be in the rifle club, working under Sir Almroth Wright.
Fleming's First Discovery: Lysozymes
That is before the first great war broke out. It was during his time in the Army Medical Corps, Fleming witnessed the power of microbes, for they far outweigh the power of the bullet and other man-made machines of destruction. He watched as so many fallen soldiers succumbed to infections that had no cure. A bullet you could remove and there was a chance of survival, but with microbes you couldn’t see, they were everywhere, multiplying and killing slowly and painfully.
After the war, Fleming turned his studies toward natural bacterial actions and antibacterial substances. In 1922, he discovered his first microbial destroyer, lysozymes. Lyso- means ‘dissolving’ and -zyme means an enzyme. These enzymes are found in the many different fluids of your body including your tears, sweat, and saliva. They have weak antibacterial properties...not enough to stop an infectious disease, but it was something.
His discovery of lysozymes was very much like his discovery of penicillin: due primarily to luck, mess, neglect, and being observant. You see, Fleming had a cold, and was wondering what was stuffing up his nose, so he blew some snot on a petri dish and went about his business.
Sometime later, he remembered that plate and went to go look at it. He noticed bacterial colonies had begun to grow on the plate but not on his boogers. He didn’t think this was because the microbes thought it was gross and so he did some more research leading to the discovery of lysozymes.
Fast forward to 1928, Fleming once again forgot about a Petri dish, this time he found a different microbe had put up a force field against another microbe. This microbe produced penicillin, the first antibiotic discovered...accidentally...out of neglect. And this mold, Penicillium notatum, was even more powerful than the lysozymes. In fact, it had antibacterial properties on way more bacterial species as well. It seemed to work on every Gram-positive bacteria, a group that was the cause of major human diseases including syphilis, strep throat, and gonorrhea.
He published these results in 1929 in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. However, he wasn’t able to isolate the mold juice, and the scientific community wasn’t that ecstatic about the whole thing.
It wasn't until 1945 that Alexander Fleming received the Nobel Prize for his discovery of penicillin. He also received several honorary degrees and several awards such as a Knight Bachelors by King George VI and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Alfonso X the wise. Time Magazine names Fleming one of the 100 most important people in the 20th century. Sir Alexander Fleming has also voted the 3rd greatest Scot of all time.
Fleming didn’t study penicillin that much after his discovery, although he did stay and research. He didn’t seem to have any more lucky discoveries. He died on March 11th, 1955 of coronary thrombosis in his home. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
So, if you aren’t the cleanest of researchers or one of the people who claim they work best in an “organized mess”, remember Alexander Fleming.
With a little luck, great things can come from a mess.