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“101 More Things…”

June 2024
1min read

As much as I enjoyed the article “101 More Things Every College Graduate Should Know about American History” (December 1987) by Professor Garraty, I was dismayed with item 93. It is a common mistake to cite Sir Alexander Fleming as the sole “inventor” of penicillin. Yes, it is true that in 1928 a penicillin mold did accidentally contaminate one of Sir Alexander’s experiments. Yes, it is true that he noted how well the penicillin mold destoyed bacteria, but Sir Alexander had no idea how important his discovery was and did not follow up the experiment.

The true “inventors” of penicillin are Sir Howard W. Florey and Ernst B. Chain. During World War II these two researched thousands of journals to find a more effective way to treat infection. They found Sir Alexander’s 1928 experiment and understood how important it was from the beginning. It is they who first used penicillin to fight infection. It is they who mobilized the chemical industry to mass-produce penicillin in the only scientific project of World War II that was comparable to the Manhattan Project.

Sir Howard W. Florey and Ernst B. Chain were both duly honored for their work; they, along with Fleming, were awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. But to his dying day Sir Howard resented that he had to share knighthood and a Nobel Prize with Fleming.

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