The Accident That Saved Lives

Newton was dozing under an apple tree when a fruit fell from the upper branches, following a straight vertical trajectory. And the gravity theory (as well as applesauce) was born.


One could not tell whether this legendary story is true or not – though Newton himself recalls the incident in his own notes. Nevertheless, accidents that contributed to create something new are many. For instance, popsicles ‘happened’ when a young boy forgot his soda-powdered drink and its stirring stick on a freezing winter night. Similarly, when an engineer visited a submarine equipped with radar technology, he noted the chocolate bar he kept in his pocket had melted; then he got the idea for designing the first microwave oven.

“In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur

Thanks to ‘happy accidents’ (also known as serendipity), numerous innovations were introduced, including lots of items that we use on a daily basis, such as Teflon, sticky notes, and dynamite (yes, on a daily basis. I had a weird childhood.) As sometimes tiny coincidences were able to change the course of history – as shown favorably by Violet Jessop’s story, or unfavorably via Operation Valkyrie’s failure – scientific research is also fostered and pushed forward accidentally. And neither the sticky notes, nor the popsicle had ever had the glorious privilege of saving thousands of lives.

But when the accidental discoveries’ fairy came by Alexander Fleming’s lab bench, in 1928, a whole page of medical history was about to turn.

fleming penicillin discovery lab
Fleming at work in his lab. (Photo: Famous European Biologists)

Fleming had already been able, in the past, to turn his own fate to his advantage. Born to Scottish farmers in 1881, he followed brilliant bacteriological studies; then, when WW1 broke out, he was sent to makeshift hospitals on the Western Front, in France. In the horrors of the trench warfare, captain Fleming treated a lot of wounded, most of which did not survive because of blood poisoning. This experience on the battlefield would forever leave its mark on young Fleming, who once back in his lab, busied himself to look for more efficient medical solutions.

HydeParkWard WW1 Hospital
Hyde Park Ward Hospital during WW1. (Photo: National Records of Scotland via Scottish Archives for Schools)

September 1928. As usual, the Scottish biologist worked among a forest of test tubes, in his messy London-based laboratory. He took August off to spend some time with his family, away from science business and the – sometimes unrewarding – research work. Just before departing a month ago, Fleming had conducted experiments on staphylococcus bacteria, and had bluntly piled up Petri dishes in a corner of his lab. Now that he was back, wishing to do a bit of cleaning, he examined the dishes: surprisingly, mold had grown in one of them, killing bacteria in the area nearby. It was as if the fungi had wiped out the staphylococcus in their wake… “That’s funny,” Fleming noted. (After all, ‘Eureka’ was already taken.)

Pursuing his experiments, Fleming soon got pretty interested. His ‘mould juice’, as he called it, had gotten rid of pathogens responsible for pneumonia, diphtheria and scarlet fever. (If you don’t know what these diseases are, just keep in mind they were serious and hard to treat. Don’t even think about Googling them. I saw things.)

Doctors of Ancient Egypt
By the way, Fleming was not the first to make the connection between mold and curing stuff. Actually the Ancient Egyptians already used it to treat wounds, but could not isolate the matter responsible for it. (Photo: Look&Learn)

In 1929, Fleming finally resolved to use the name penicillin. However, his lucky discovery did not yet find a warm welcome from the medical community; he run multiples tests in the 1930s to try to generate a stable version of it with skilled chemists, but was unsuccessful. As he was on the verge of giving up, other experts – notably Howard Florey and Ernst Chain – took the reins and managed to find an ideal formula for mass production.

Mass production of the drug was indeed required: WW2 had broken out, and by the end of the war, American companies were producing about 650 billion units of penicillin per month. (Photo: GetScience)

The discovery of penicillin pioneered modern medication, introducing antibiotics to a world that badly needed it. Devastating diseases, such as tuberculosis, gangrene and syphilis, were now easy to treat and quickly eradicated. The Scot, receiving worldwide acclaim, was given the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945 – jointly with Florey and Chain.

Moral of the story: when researchers do not find anything, let them take a month off.


Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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