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By Roger Highfield on

Oxford and the forgotten man of penicillin

Walk through the ground floor of the Science Museum and you will pass by a little brass box which contains mould donated by Sir Alexander Fleming. Roger Highfield explains more.

As Oxford University’s Dunn School gears up to celebrate its key role in the history of penicillin, Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group and member of the Longitude Committee, discusses the breakthrough and the spectre of a post-antibiotic era. 

Walk through the ground floor of the Science Museum and you will pass by a little brass box which contains mould donated by Sir Alexander Fleming to a medical friend in 1935 after they had attended a lecture about a new antibacterial medicine: Fleming told his friend that he had something much better.

Sample of penicillin mould presented by Alexander Fleming, 1935.
Sample of penicillin mould presented by Alexander Fleming, 1935.

Many know that the greatest therapeutic revolution of the 20th century was launched by the contents of this box, which in 1928 Fleming had discovered when he returned from holiday to find mould in one of his Petri dishes where it had prevented the growth of surrounding bacteria.

But, as the billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates pointed out during a visit to the Science Museum to spur more Government investment in basic research, it took additional work in Oxford for the revolution to truly begin.

Penicillin was eventually isolated there in 1939 where it was administered for the first time in 1941 (the museum has some early samples), marking the rise of the antibiotic era and a precipitous fall in the toll of bacterial infections on the vulnerable: just a decade earlier, infant mortality – deaths of children before their first birthday – stood at around one in 20.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the first therapeutic dose of penicillin, the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University has organised a lecture by Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, to around 300 eminent medical research scientists, friends and supporters of the Dunn School, and staff in the Weston Library – the newly renovated Bodleian building.

Head of Department, Prof Matthew Freeman said: “the administration of penicillin in man marked the birth of the antibiotic era and, unsurprisingly, was recently voted as the greatest medical breakthrough of the 20th century.”

The first dose was to Albert Alexander in 1941, a policeman in the Radcliffe Infirmary on Woodstock Road. Though this was a cause for celebration, Freeman pointed out that ‘sadly Albert Alexander died because they did not have enough penicillin for a complete course.’

Although Fleming first discovered penicillin in 1928 at St Mary’s hospital, London, he did not recognise its significance as a treatment for systemic infection and believed its instability and the challenges around purification made it unsuitable for development into a drug.

Driven by the need to address the toll of infection related deaths in World War II it was Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at the Dunn School who did recognise its full potential, and set about developing penicillin into a viable medicine.

The anniversary event is part of the Dunn School’s annual Norman Heatley lecture series, named after Florey’s associate.

Heatley is known as “the forgotten man of penicillin” but was in many people’s estimation pivotal to the work at the Dunn School, not least by fashioning a purification system out of a bookcase in the face of wartime shortages.

Other key players include another Nobelist, Dorothy Hodgkin, who solved the molecular structure of penicillin giving the opportunity for the development of variants of penicillin to help deal with resistance.

An exhibition about the history of penicillin, Back from the Dead, will be unveiled at Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science from 4 November. Among the events will be a lecture by the Science Museum’s Prof Robert Bud on 22 November, entitled Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy, after his book of the same name.

The drug resulted in a Nobel Prize in 1945 for Florey, Chain and Fleming, who made the prescient remark in his acceptance speech that it is “not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin.”

Today we are more dependent on antibiotics than ever before, from organ donations to hip transplants, but our antibiotic arsenal is becoming increasingly ineffective with the evolution of resistant microbes, or ‘superbugs’.

Drug-resistant infections could kill an extra 10 million people across the world every year by 2050 if they are not tackled, warned the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, published in December 2014, and Chief Medical Officer Prof Dame Sally Davies talked of a “catastrophic threat” earlier this year at an event held in the Science Museum. The £10 million Longitude Prize aims to spur the creation of a cheap, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow doctors and nurses to better target their treatments.

The Museum has also had displays about resistance, advised Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, on a computer game to highlight the issue of resistance and will return to the subject as part of the £24 million Medicine Galleries, due to be completed in 2019.

Prof Matthew Freeman remarked that it was ‘sad and ironic that our celebration coincides with the announcement by the UN that the antibiotic era might soon be over.”