History of health, medicine and naval history
The Inoculation Department at St Mary’s Hospital was intended from the first to be innovative in being a research institute attached to the wards of a general hospital where the development of a new form of treatment could be translated quickly into patient care. That was in 1904 and is still an important aim today in such modern academic health science centres as its successors in Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Imperial College London. Under the robust leadership of Sir Almroth Wright, younger talent emerged, including Leonard Noon and John Freeman whose work on allergy at St Mary’s was pioneering, Leonard Colebrook who showed the effectiveness of the sulphonamides in treating puerperal sepsis at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital before fighting burns infections at Glasgow and Birmingham in the Second World War, and Alexander Fleming whose discovery of penicillin in 1928 revolutionised medicine.
The Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum preserves the laboratory in which this ground-breaking discovery was made in September 1928. The development of penicillin into a life-saving drug took place at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford in the early 1940s but without Fleming’s initial discovery and suggestion of a clinical importance for it there would have been nothing to develop. The history of penicillin demonstrates the need for different approaches at different stages in drug discovery and development: the role of the individual and imaginative, even unconventional, thinking can be crucial for taking advantage of a chance discovery. But the individual in science and medicine cannot have all the skills and expertise necessary for the complex clinical development of a drug. For that multidisciplinary teamwork was essential. And a different approach again was needed for the industrial scaleup of production. A one size fits all approach would not have been adequate in the case of penicillin. Fleming’s role was to kick start the whole process through discovery, publication and the dissemination of his antibiotic-bearing mould to other labs where further development could take place.
The fame that came with penicillin turned the shy and modest Fleming into a celebrity who represented the human face of medicine and science to the public at a time when these were coming to be seen as remote and threatening in the atomic age. He was also described as one of the best ambassadors for the UK in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As such he and his chance discovery of penicillin have an inspirational role that goes beyond drug development.
Fleming’s laboratory may now just be a museum, but it continues to inspire modern researchers and offers valuable lessons on drug development for pharmacologists, pharmacists, doctors and the public in these days of antibiotic resistance and the failure to develop new antibiotics. Don’t forget that Fleming himself warned of the dangers of antibiotic resistance so long ago as 1943. From that humble, old fashioned even for its time, laboratory came the dawn of the antibiotic age, inspiration to future scientists and the challenge to continue what began there.