A small sample of Sir Alexander Fleming's original penicillin culture (above) was put up for sale by a London auction house in July. In 1955 Fleming had given the fungus to a neighbor to thank him for foiling a robbery at the famed microbiologist's home. Fleming stumbled on the antibiotic properties of Penicillium mold in 1928, and over the course of the following decade University of Oxford bacteriologists and others expanded on his findings to develop the first antibiotic drug. Mass production of penicillin during World War II cured millions of people of bacterial infections that would have been fatal otherwise. Today antibiotics are considered one of the greatest discoveries in medical history—thus the auction of a crusty petri dish that would have been thrown out long ago. In a letter accompanying the sample, the microbiologist's housekeeper warned its recipient that the contents were “not to be confused with Gorgonzola cheese!!!”
By the Numbers
Cost per 100,000 units of penicillin in 1943. With mass production, that price fell to less than 10 cents by 1949.
Units of the antibiotic produced by U.S. companies in 1945.
Percentage of deaths attributed to bacterial pneumonia in World War II, down from 18 percent in World War I.
Classes of antibiotics introduced since penicillin became available.
Price paid by the highest bidder for Fleming's original culture.
SOURCES FOR STATISTICS: DISCOVERY AND DEVELOPMENT OF PENICILLIN, IN AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY'S INTERNATIONAL HISTORIC CHEMICAL LANDMARKS www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/flemingpenicillin.html (first two items); “THE REAL STORY BEHIND PENICILLIN,” BY HOWARD MARKEL, IN PBS NEWSHOUR'S “THE RUNDOWN.” PUBLISHED ONLINE SEPTEMBER 27, 2013 www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic (third item); “NEW BUSINESS MODELS FOR ANTIBIOTIC INNOVATION,” BY ANTHONY D. SO AND TEJEN A. SHAH, IN UPSALA JOURNAL OF MEDICAL SCIENCES, VOL. 119, NO. 2; MAY 2014 (fourth item); CATHERINE SOUTHON AUCTIONEERS & VALUERS (fifth item)