The accident on a messy desk that shaped modern medicine

Ninety years ago, Alexander Fleming made a discovery that would change the course of modern medicine

Untidy desk, tidy mind, as one spin of the old saying goes. The truth of it might be debatable, but on one day 90 years ago, it made perfect sense.

In the late summer of 1928, Alexander Fleming – renowned for his messy lab – abandoned petri dishes containing staphylococci bacteria while he went on holiday. On his return, he discovered something extraordinary.

‘I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine’

‘When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did,’ Fleming later said.

Early in the morning, Fleming ventured into his laboratory and started to clear the petri dishes he’d haphazardly piled on a workbench weeks before. One dish caught his eye: a curious mould had developed, preventing the growth of the staphylococci bacteria. And thus one of the greatest advancements to modern medicine was discovered.

The antiseptics used by his fellow medics didn’t seem to help

A decade or so before, Fleming had been a doctor in the Royal Medical Corps in the First World War. He noticed the antiseptics used by his fellow medics on soldiers with deep wounds didn’t seem to help them. In fact, often they made the patients worse. During the war, Fleming submitted an article to medical journal The Lancet in which he described how antiseptics were killing more soldiers than infection itself, as they inhibited the body’s own natural defences and couldn’t fight bacteria deep within wounds. Little notice was taken of his findings. Once he returned from the war, he dedicated his research to finding antibacterial substances.

Fleming’s self-described ‘mould juice’ wasn’t used in medicine until the Second World War. In fact, after struggling to cultivate large enough quantities of the fungus to be able to create an antibiotic agent, and several inconclusive clinical trials, he gave up. It wasn’t until the 1940s when a group of researchers in Oxford reformulated it into a stable form, that penicillin was received as the medical breakthrough we know today.