We have all heard that necessity is the mother of invention. People dropping dead of small pox? Find a vaccine. Tired of squinting in candle light? Here, have a light bulb. Indeed, innovations are rarely hit on just for the fun of it and some of the best and most important innovations happened by accident, either while looking for something else or came completely out of the blue.

X-ray technology came about because German Physicist Wilhelm Rontgen was experimenting with chloride. We have velcro now because a an electrical engineer by the name of George de Mestral was astute enough to notice how cockle burs stuck themselves to the fur of his dog. Some of the greatest discoveries in paleontology were nearly tripped over. Such was also the case for the life-saving discovery of penicillin.

The Beginning

Prior to the discovery of penicillin, people routinely died of infectious bacteria-born diseases, both common and not. Who would have guessed that all the lives saved since its implication were saved because of a vacation. Way back in the mists of history in 1928, English bacteriologists, a bacteria expert as the name suggests, Dr.Alexander Fleming affiliated with St. Mary’s hospital, went to Scotland for a bit of a rest. Returning to his laboratory at the end of the Summer, Dr. Fleming noticed something amiss; his samples of Staphylococcus aureus seemed to have taken on a new growth.

On closer inspection Dr. Fleming realized that his petri dish samples had been invaded by a type of mold known to those in the field of Penicillium notatum. Investigating further possessing a scientist’s natural curiosity, Dr. Fleming found, while looking at the ruined samples under a microscope, that the new residents had not grown the way one might expect, the invading species of mold seeming to have impeded the development of the staphylococci. It took a few more weeks for Dr. Fleming to cultivate enough Penicillium notatum to replicate the result and confirm his suspicions. That there was some factor in the naturally occurring invasive mold species that literally stopped bacteria from growing, halting the spread of bacterial infections.

Red-Tape and Discoveries

Still having to deal with the iron clad suspicions and paranoia of government approval boards, the job of making the active factor of Penicillin applicable to medical use, which basically involved extracting and purifying ‘mold juice’ to be able to identify the active factor.  Dr. Fleming had neither the facilities or chemistry background to do it himself and had help from Dr. Howard Florey, who served as the director of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford.

Also indispensable in the process was biochemist Dr. Norman Heatley. In all, it would take three experts in their field and twelve years from the time of its discovery for penicillin to be deemed fit for human testing in the late Summer of 1940 with Oxford Police Constable Albert Alexander being the first case. It would be another two years before it was tried on a civilian.

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Trevor McNeil
Trevor McNeil spent much of his childhood playing video-games on early-form personal computers back when the disks were literally floppy. He attended the University of Victoria, completing a degree in Social Science with a concentration in Technology In Society, while also writing for the campus newspaper. He has written articles for such diverse publications as Humanity Death Watch, PopMatters and Perfect Sound Forever. He is a veteran of numerous “watershed moments” in the history of technological development and firmly believes that Han shot first.

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