super-pillSir Alexander Fleming died of a heart attack on this day 58 years ago, at the age of 73. Born in Ayrshire, Scotland, he worked in a shipping office until an inheritance enabled him to enrol in St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington, where he subsequently became a researcher, before serving as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, working in battlefield hospitals at the Western Front.

Having observed many soldiers die from infected wounds, Fleming began a search for anti-bacterial agents. In 1928, he became Professor of Bacteriology at the University of London, and later that year he noticed that a fungus had contaminated a culture of staphylococci that he was growing, and some of the staphylococci had been killed. He identified the mould as coming from the penicillium genus, and he subsequently called the substance which it released penicillin.

However, it was difficult to grow the mould and isolate the antibiotic agent, and initial clinical trials were inconclusive, so Fleming eventually abandoned his research. Fortunately, others continued the research and discovered ways to mass-produce the drug, so the penicillin became the most effective known infection-fighting agent, which could for the first time provide cures for diseases such as tuberculosis and gangrene.

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