Alexander Fleming: Finding the first antibiotic

Legend has it that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because of a lucky accident. He had inoculated staphylococci bacteria in a few culture plates just before he was going for a vacation to Suffolk. 

When he returned from the vacation, he noticed that one culture plate was contaminated with fungus. And while most scientists would have discarded the contaminated plate and focused their research only on the good plates, Fleming studied the contamination as well. And he famously exclaimed “that’s funny” – because he found that bacteria immediately surrounding the fungus had been destroyed! Fleming thought that the fungus was from the genus penicillium – and hence called his discovery penicillin.

But why did Fleming study an error plate that almost all other scientists would have discarded? What made him tick with curiosity?

Why did Fleming pay attention when others would not have?

When Alexander Fleming was young and worked at St Mary’s hospital treating syphilis cases, a few of his patients were painters. And they gave him free painting lessons in return for his treatment.

And while Fleming never became an awesome painter, he loved painting. He was invited to join the Chelsea Arts club where he experimented and created various amateur paintings. 

But here is the weird thing: Fleming didn’t use watercolour for his paintings. Instead, he experimented with live bacteria! He would fill a culture plate with agar and then mix various species of bacteria in it to create different colours! And then he painted with it.

That’s exactly why, 6 years before he found penicillin, he discovered lysozyme – an antimicrobial enzyme that our bodies create to fight bacteria. How? By adding everything from blood to pus to tears to culture plates with bacteria in it. When he added his nose’s mucus to a plate, he discovered that bacteria growth stopped. 

So in reality, penicillin was the second antibacterial solution that he discovered. And he paid attention to it where others would not have – because he was looking to create new colours!

“Isn’t it funny?”

The chase for funny and weird is where breakthrough happens. Who would have thought that billions of lives would be saved because a lab researcher liked painting with bacteria?

When two unlikely fields intersect, the chances of such weird lucky breaks increase. But why? Because breakthroughs come from trying new things no one has tried before.

Isaac Asimov, our favourite science fiction writer, had a very insightful thought. He remarked that breakthroughs are not preceded by discipline and rigorous work. But by surprise and uncertainty. When you don’t know the outcome is when the chances of something completely novel and disruptive being found is the most.

So how can you replicate Alexander Fleming’s lucky accidents?

  1. Have varied interests. Mix your work and hobbies. 
  2. And push the boundaries doing things others haven’t. 

Be proud to be called weird and eccentric. And you will find your accidental breaks too.

Action Summary:

  • Push yourself doing things in very different types of fields. Don’t have a narrow focus to work.