February 19, 2014 5:02 pm

This famous quotation by Alexander Fleming is certainly true with regard to his discovery of penicillin. This antibiotic resulted in its discoverer sharing the Nobel Prize in 1945 and being ranked as the most important discovery of the millennium by at least 3 large magazines at the approach of 2000.


A Petri Dish Surprise


Bacteriologist Alexander Fleming made a chance discovery in 1928 from a discarded, contaminated Petri dish. Fleming had just returned from vacation as he was sorting through a large stack of unattended Petri dishes that had been moved to allow his work bench to be used while he was gone. Many of the dishes were contaminated and placed within a tray of Lysol creating a growing pile.


While sorting through the pile of dishes, Fleming’s former lab assistant stopped by as Fleming began to complain about the extra work he had since the assistant had transferred from his lab. As an example, Fleming rummaged through the large pile of dishes placed within the Lysol tray and removed several that had remained above the Lysol. While showing one particular dish to the former assistant, Fleming noticed that a mold had grown on the dish while he was on vacation. While the growing mold was not strange, the ability of it to have killed the Staphylococcus aureus that had been growing in the dish was the true discovery. Fleming then grew the mold in a pure culture and found that it produced a substance that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. After some months of calling it “mould juice,” he named the substance it released penicillin.


Fate had to intervene on various levels for this accident to occur that led to one of the greatest advances in medicine. Before its introduction, infections such as pneumonia and rheumatic fever had no effective treatment. So, we should be grateful that Fleming was a slob, enjoyed taking vacations, and had to stop to complain about his former assistant for the conception of penicillin that heralded the dawn of the antibiotic age.


More Inventions by Accident


In a time of constant innovation and discovery, many inventions may take years to develop. However, sometimes, all that is required is an accident. History is full of inventors such as Alexander Fleming stumbling upon discoveries by accident including the invention of Silly Putty, the Slinky, Play-Doh and Chocolate Chip Cookies!

According to Nobel price-winning biochemist Albert Szent-Gyogyi:
“A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.”

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