St Mary's Hospital
Wednesday October 22 2014
This was a solo expedition by Linda while Mary and Jo were doing half-term activities of a more boisterous nature. It was also partly to honour those ‘back-room ‘ scientists who still work with Petrie dishes and test tubes filled with dangerous substances – yes I’m talking about you the 16 micro-biologists headed for a testing month in Sierra Leone.
This is also a story of mould, so unwelcome when it appears unwanted on walls and carpets but clearly something with occasional uses.
I strode out of the Bakerloo line exit from Paddington and took a back route to St Mary’s hospital (as signposted) which was NOT the way to go; I filtered my way through out-patients and asked at the hospital refreshment counter (no Costa Coffee here) where the Museum was: what Museum? they asked. Threading my way between the buildings I finally located the Clarence Wing – actually fronting busy Praed Street which was more or less where I had started On entering it was like stepping into a set from ‘Call the Midwife’ so old-fashioned does it look. I followed the signs round several corridors and up a flight of tiled stone stairs to the Reception/Shop for the Museum. The actual room is kept locked and can only be visited with one of the volunteer escorts who tell you about Fleming’s life and work and the importance of the discovery of penicillin.
Fleming was born in a farming community in rural Ayrshire and had a very basic education – but he perhaps developed his powers of observation during these early years. Bored with being a shipping clerk in London he applied to be a surgeon but was turned down. However, following receiving a small legacy he re-applied and became a medical student at St Mary’s excelling at all his exams. After graduation he joined the department of Bacteriology, headed up by Almroth Wright. The latter was one of those caricature flamboyant physicians (immortalised in Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma) who believed passionately in research, especially into typhoid, but not in keeping statistics. He also could not abhor women at work, especially in medicine!!! His work was in immunisation and this is the department that Fleming joined working on Lysozyme, one of our inbuilt defences against BACTERIA. From there you probably know the rest ... that he left his petrie dishes open and went away and returned to find mould had formed on one of them but the microbes/germs/bacteria close to the mould had vanished .
The volunteer will take you up to the second floor where you will see a small workbench with adequate stool seating for two. It has all the paraphernalia you would expect from a 1928 laboratory – racks of test tubes, piles of Petrie dishes, two bunsen burners, an incubator and pipettes. There are three pretty dirty windows out onto Praed Street. In a side cabinet there are various awards that Fleming received in his life-time and a Scottish £5 note which he adorns. The original Petrie dish apparently is preserved in the British Library. Fleming went on to publish his findings – that the mould penicillin seemed to kill Bacteria – in 1929 and he continued to practise at St Mary’s. (My mother swears that when she visited another woman from her hostel admitted to the hospital during the war Dr Fleming was on the wards… who knows.) The problem then was how to manufacture ‘enough' mould to be able to use it to combat sepsis, which was of course the main killer of the times.
Ten years or so later the work continued in Oxford where two overseas researchers Howard Florey (from New Zealand) and Ernst Chain (from Germany) worked on the manufacture and further application of penicillin. The start of the war added impetus (and money) to the research project with the thinking being that wounded service personnel could be saved and turned round to fight again – by D-Day there was enough penicillin for every combatant.
There is no photography allowed in the laboratory but you will be escorted up a further level to a smaller back room where there is a short film sponsored and produced by one of the major pharmaceutical companies, who in a former incarnation doubtless made money after contributing to the development of a manufactured strain. The website leaflet very much turns the spotlight on Fleming but to be fair the film, with some good archive footage, gives due credit to a range of other chemists, biologists and doctors who all helped to pioneer the safe use of one of the 20th century ‘s undoubted life savers. At one point they were 'harvesting' second hand penicillin from soldiers prescribed it (don't ask). Public recognition came in the shape of a Nobel prize for all three men.
The film (20 years old) pre-dates the research showing us that over- use and over prescription or failing to finish a course of treatment has led the bacteria to evolve greater resistance than they showed in 1928…so the story is not entirely finished.