Penicillin man: Alexander Fleming and the antibiotic revolution

Penicillin man: Alexander Fleming and the antibiotic revolution 
Kevin Brown 
Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing | 2004 | 300pp | ?20.00 | ISBN 0750931523 
Reviewed by Dennis Rouvray

If ever there was an instance of fortune favouring the prepared mind, the revolutionary discovery made by Alexander Fleming was a textbook example. 

Having been away from his workbench at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, UK, for a month’s vacation in August 1928, Fleming was confronted on his return by an enormous stack of mouldy culture plates. But, always methodical in his work practice, he examined each of the plates before passing them on to his assistant for sterilisation. One specific plate covered with a thick mould of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureuscaught his eye. This plate had been partially contaminated by a fungus that quite unexpectedly appeared to inhibit the growth of the mould.  

The fungus eventually turned out to be Penicillium notatum, capable of destroying the causative agents of a wide range of infectious diseases, including septicaemia, meningitis and venereal diseases. It proved to be a godsend during the second world war for healing badly infected wounds. Penicillin made its appearance on the scene because of the alacrity with which Fleming pursued his chance observation of something out of the ordinary. 

History has not always been kind to Fleming. Some authors have attempted to place him on a pedestal, but many others have been overly critical. Some have even suggested that his role in the development of penicillin was minimal, the reason for this being that the isolation of and the initial biochemical studies on penicillin were carried out at Oxford University by a multidisciplinary team headed by Howard Florey and his co-worker Ernst Chain. Undoubtedly it was this team that made the therapeutic use of penicillin feasible.  

Eventually, the Nobel prize for medicine was awarded to all three, though Fleming received far more nominations than either of the other two. In this book, Kevin Brown seeks to recount a story that remains as dramatic today as it ever was. He also attempts to redress some of the more tendentious and unfounded criticisms that have been levelled by previous authors. 

In this meticulously researched account of the life and times of Fleming, we are offered a book that is not only a triumph of scholarship but also one that is highly entertaining to read.