Kevin Brown Historian

History of health, medicine and naval history

Not Just A Load of Old Test Tubes: An Interview with the Curator of the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum

  • Can you tell the audience who you are and the back story to the Museum?

I am the Curator  of the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum and Trust Archivist to Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which runs St Mary’s, Charing Cross, Hammersmith, Queen Charlotte’s and the Western Eye Hospitals. As such I am responsible for history and for managing heritage services, an unusual role in the National Health Service but we do have some great history behind us and some great things ahead. Perhaps best known is the discovery of penicillin at St Mary’s Hospital in 1928,  or it was until St Mary’s became the scene of some royal births that attracted international attention!

A guided tour in the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum

A guided tour in the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum

I was originally appointed to set up an archives service for St Mary’s but my brief was soon extended to setting up a museum devoted to Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. You’ve probably passed by the blue plaque in Praed Street, well, now, you can go inside and see the very laboratory in which penicillin was discovered looking much as it did in 1928. For a long time though, the blue plaque and one put up inside the building were all that there was to see. Yet people came from all over the world and were disappointed that they could not see the room in which penicillin was discovered. There had been ideas since Fleming’s death in 1955 of a museum to commemorate the discovery, but the time was not right and there was no one to see through the establishment of a museum so  nothing really happened. Then in 1993 the pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham came up with funding, there was support within the Hospital and Medical School, Fleming’s son Robert was keen to see his father’s work commemorated, and someone was there to take the task on. The Museum opened in September 1993, sixty-five years after the discovery.

Earlier plans had been for  display cases full of Fleming’s awards. By the 1990s, though, it was considered much more exciting to reconstruct Fleming’s actual laboratory on its original site. Fleming had occupied that room since 1919 but moved to a more modern lab in 1933. The room was then used as a bedroom for students doing their midwifery, and Fleming’s own son actually slept in his father’s old lab when he was a medical student in the 1940s. Later it was used as a nappy store.  How are the mighty fallen! Now, you can see it as it would have been in Fleming’s time – some of the equipment was his, other items belonged to his colleagues. It is like stepping back in time. Fleming could be just about to come in and make his discovery.

We also offer our visitors, a short film and small exhibition, but the exciting thing is to be in the actual spot where it all happened and to see the laboratory as it was back in 1928. A team of volunteer guides is on hand to talk about Fleming and answer any questions. Some of our guides in the early days of the Museum actually knew Fleming. One indeed was his ward sister from 1947 until 1955, and was also Winston Churchill’s night nurse when he had a stroke as prime minister in the 1950s.. The current volunteers may not have known Fleming personally, but their enthusiasm and knowledge all add to the enjoyment of our visitors.

Did I know Fleming, personally? No  – he died before I was born, but I feel as though I knew him well. Not only did I do the research to set up the Museum, but I have also written a biography Penicillin Man: Alexander Fleming and the Antibiotic Revolution. Through talking to people who did know him, reading his papers, diaries and correspondence and researching into his work, I feel I did know the man as much as anyone could who wasn’t him.  Certainly I find him and his discovery fascinating.

  • Can you describe who Alexander Fleming was and how he discovered penicillin?

Alexander Fleming was Professor of Bacteriology at St Mary’s, where he spent his entire career. Although born in 1881 on a hill farm in Scotland, he came to London to finish his education at the age of 14. He entered St Mary’s Hospital Medical School as a student in 1901 and was still working there, by now Principal of the Wright Fleming Institute, when he died in 1955. His fame now rests on his discovery of penicillin, but he was more than a one hit wonder. During the First World War he became the acknowledged expert on the bacteriology of wound infections and showed that the use of strong antiseptics on battlefield wounds was doing more harm than good. In 1921, he discovered lysozyme, an enzyme which acts as the body’s  own antiseptic. You may not have heard of lysozyme, but I am sure you do know something about it. Ever licked a paper cut on your finger or seen an animal lick its wounds and wondered why? Saliva contains this enzyme which Fleming was the first person to identify and study.

Fleming & culture plateHe was 47 when he discovered penicillin at the mid-point of his career. On 3 September 1928, he had returned to work after six week’s holiday (which can’t be bad!) to find that a Petri dish that he had left on his laboratory bench before going away had become contaminated by a fungus. Such contamination was an occupational hazard, especially in Fleming’s cluttered, musty and somewhat dusty laboratory, and the mould did not really interest him. What did attract his attention more was that there were no bacteria growing close to the mould. Something from the fungus obviously had inhibited the growth of the Staphylococci, a substance which Fleming at first called ‘mould juice’ and later named ‘penicillin’ after the fungus, Penicillium notatum, which had produced it. His initial comment was ‘That’s funny’. He was ever the master of understatement.

  • What were his motivations?

Fleming was a man of few words and expressed his emotions and motivations badly. He was a doctor dedicated to healing and alleviating suffering and a hard-working bacteriologist with a keen sense of scientific curiosity. He had originally intended to become a surgeon but (pardon the pun!) caught the bug for bacteriology which was then an exciting young science which seemed to offer new ways of treating infections and infectious diseases through an understanding of the germs that caused them. It could be argued that he actually did more for surgery by becoming a bacteriologist since his discovery of penicillin provided a means of combatting wound infections and allowing for more advanced and invasive surgical methods.

He was a scientist with a hinterland, someone who had interests outside the narrow specialism of his work, though in his case they did effect his approach to his scientific and medical work. Fleming had an eye for the quirky and for the unusual, as well as a way of looking beyond the obvious, which may have come from his boyhood surrounded by nature on a Scottish hill farm. There was a playful side to him  shown by his interest in art where, instead of using oils or watercolours to paint a picture, he used differently pigmented bacteria to produce what he called germ paintings. They may have been a bit of fun, mere painting by numbers with bugs, but to do them at all, let alone do them well, demanded great expertise and knowledge, as well as being the fruit of the imaginativeness and receptiveness to something that did not fit into a preconceived pattern  He was actually a member of the Chelsea Arts Club though he mainly wen there to play billiards every night after work.

Fleming’s role in the story of penicillin had been one of making the original observation from which all else was to flow and of seeing the significance of something which others might have missed. His training as a medical doctor and bacteriologist, his own acute powers of observation and love of improvising, his open-mindedness and his previous work all made him receptive to the significance of what he had seen by chance.

  • Since he discovered penicillin, did he face any struggles in getting the drug to the masses?

Fleming’s great significance in the development of antibiotics is that he recognised that there was a clinical potential for the use of penicillin if the problems of stabilising and purifying it could be overcome. He was mainly thinking in terms of using it topically, on the surface of a wound, like a local antiseptic. In this he was fitting his discovery into the clinical ideas of the time, but more importantly, he anticipated its use as an antibiotic (although the word itself was not coined until 1941) when he talked about the possibility of using it systemically and injecting it into a  patient’s blood stream.

Although Fleming suggested the possibilities for penicillin in 1929 and himself did further work on it in 1934,  he was unable to  stabilise and purify it which limited any clinical use on patients. Essentially he was a lone researcher, which put him in an ideal position to take advantage of his chance observation, but team work was what was needed to develop it. One person alone could not have all the skills, knowledge and expertise needed.

  • How did he overcome these struggles?

It was not until 1939 that things were in place for a further advance to be made when a research team at the Sir William School of Pathology at the University of Oxford began work on penicillin as they were approaching the end of a project on the biochemistry of lysozyme, Fleming’s earlier discovery, and were looking for a new research project. The interest of the Oxford team was initially purely academic. Only as they progressed with their work did they become aware of the therapeutic value of stabilising and purifying penicillin, a contrast with the ethos of the Inoculation Department at St Mary’s where clinical applications were ever at the forefront of the work being done. The leader of that team the Australian pathologist Howard Florey and the biochemist, Ernst Chain, a German Jewish refugee from the Nazis, shared with Fleming the 1945 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Fleming got it for his initial discovery and Florey and chain for its development;, but behind Florey and Chain was a larger team of men and women scientists who also deserve a share of the credit since multidisciplinary teamwork was the key to the Oxford team’s success.

  • The museum is clearly successful, what does its future hold?

I’d say that for a small museum, the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum punches above its weight. We have an international profile, visitors come from all over the world, there are regular visits from French and Danish schools, American universities, we welcome visits from local schools and will go out to talk to them with a slide show and some objects, and we also welcome visits from all sorts of groups and go out to talk to them. The Museum is a spot of culture (bacterial and otherwise!) and of history in a rapidly changing, exciting Paddington. We hope to continue to reach out, explain and help people to understand the importance of the discovery of penicillin, encourage people to engage with medicine and science,  show how what happened all those years ago is still relevant and also give our visitors and interesting, welcoming, entertaining and enjoyable visit. I’d encourage everyone to check it out for themselves. It is unique and it is here for the world  in Paddington.Summer Festival-Penicillin 75 016

The Museum is at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, with its own entrance in Norfolk Place. It is open Mondays to Thursdays 10 am to 1 pm, and for groups by advance appointment at other times.

Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum, St Mary’s Hospital, Praed Street, London W2 1nY.

Telephone: 0203 312 6528

Email: T: @KBrownHistorian


2 comments on “Not Just A Load of Old Test Tubes: An Interview with the Curator of the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum

  1. Dawn Howard
    April 1, 2019

    I am currently researching the life and times of Dr Samuel Armstrong Lane. I am very interested in any information on his career at St Mary’s, and the medical school that transferred, from Grosvenor Square to St Mary’s. Can you please tell me whether the St Mary’s Archives hold any information on him? anything at all would be helpful. I have read excerpts of E A Heamans book “St Mary’s The History of….., and she gives in there a few pieces of information on him. I am at a stalemate at present in my research in as much as where to where to go to gather any of this information and would appreciate, anything you could tell me, or perhaps direct me in the right direction. Many Thanks Dawn Howard

    • Kevin Brown Historian
      April 1, 2019

      There are stray references to him in the minutes of the Hospital, including the minutes of the Governors, Medical Committee and Medical School Committee, but no personal papers of Lane are held. There is not much that is personal about Lane. St Mary’s Hospital Medical School was established by St Mary’s Hospital. Lane donated his museum collections from his own private anatomy school and some of the physicians and surgeons who taught at it were elected to the staff of St Mary’s, no doubt through Lane’s influence though they still had to be elected by all the governors (ie subscribers).

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This entry was posted on April 19, 2018 by in Uncategorized.
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