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Unlocking science, beyond serendipity

Unlocking science, beyond serendipity
Alexander Fleming, a Professor of Bacteriology at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London and an expert on Staphylococcus, was investigating changes in colour, texture and cohesion of Staphylococcus aureus colonies when left at room temperature.  Before leaving for a vacation to Suffolk in August 1928, he stacked all his culture plates in one corner of a bench so that the space could be available for a colleague to work while he was away.

On his return from vacation, Dr Fleming began his work by taking out the culture plates when his former assistant, Dr Merlin Pryce walked in. Dr Pryce lifted the cover of the culture plate and noticed a mould about 20 mm in diameter with a smaller module attached to it. Around it was a clear area in which organisms had apparently had been lysed; further away were degenerate colonies, while still further away were normal colonies of Staphylococci. Dr Pryce looked and said: ‘That’s how you discovered lysozyme’ and left. Dr Fleming realised that this was something important and sub-cultured the mould keeping it in nutrient broth for further research. 

A spore of Penicillium notatum had unknowingly drifted into the culture plate. His subsequent research showed that after eight-days’ growth at room temperature the culture gave complete inhibition of staphylococci at a dilution of 1 in 500. Dr Fleming named the antibiotic ‘penicillin’. On 10 May, 1929, he sent a paper on penicillin to the Journal of Experimental Pathology, marking a significant breakthrough in medical science.

The discovery of penicillin was due to two extraordinary coincidences. An essential requirement that came to be known later was that the mould started producing penicillin before the staphylococci began to grow, as it only acts on young, growing organisms. In Dr. Fleming’s cultures, the plate was not put in the incubator but left with the others to await his return from holiday.This allowed the Penicillium notatum spore that had drifted into the culture plate to grow before the staphylococci. The second extraordinary coincidence was that the temperature changes in the laboratory during August were such as to favour the growth of the Penicillium notatum before the staphylococci began to grow.

The location of Dr. Fleming’s laboratory and lower temperatures in the initial days favoured the growth of Penicillium notatum and the secretion of penicillin. Higher temperatures in later days allowed staphylococci to start growing and produce the phenomenon that Dr. Fleming saw. Dr. Fleming was never able to reproduce it in 1928-29 because he was not aware of the conditions required.

Was the discovery of penicillin a series of happy coincidences? The spore of Penicillium notatum conveniently drifting onto a culture plate left in the open by a scientist who was on a vacation at the right time when ambient conditions were conducive to the development of the antibiotic. These quirks of chance occurrences are the stuff around which theories of accidental scientific research appealing to popular imagination are constructed. Kekule’s dream, Newton’s apple, the Archimedean bath and other such instances bring scientific discovery within the reach of the ordinary. No less a person than Christian Huygens is stated to have said that a man capable of inventing the telescope without the concurrence of accident must have been gifted with superhuman genius.

Science has been around for as long as man has walked this earth. It is a search for explanations for phenomena that occur or can occur in the natural world. We do not have an historical record for three of mankind’s greatest scientific discoveries - fire, agriculture and writing. How did man tread upon just 5-7 cereal crops from thousands of wild grass species that abound? How did early man discover fire? How did he learn to write? Was it through keen study or was it by accident? May be the first time the wild grass was tasted or fire was struck or things were written, it was by accident. May be it was followed by earnest attempts to replicate the experiences in what can be described as a scientific way. 

Even if we were to accept that most of man’s early discoveries were brought about by accident and on the assumption that at the time of their discovery, the true value and significance of the discovery would not have been known, does it follow that the design of time and place were alone sufficient to produce the invention?  We can only speculate. And speculation in the absence of evidence is the antithesis of science.
Saumya Umashankar

Saumya Umashankar

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