Skip main navigation

A warning from Fleming

An excerpt from Alexander Fleming's 1945 Nobel Prize acceptance speech for his, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain's discovery of Penicillin.
Photo of a penicillin fermentation flask
© Wellcome Genome Campus Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences
Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel prize in 1945 for the discovery of Penicillin, the world’s first broad-spectrum antibiotic. Very early in the discovery, they established the ease with which bacteria could develop resistance to Penicillin. In Fleming’s Nobel acceptance speech he ended with a warning for future generations:
“…But I would like to sound one note of warning. Penicillin is to all intents and purposes non-poisonous so there is no need to worry about giving an overdose and poisoning the patient. There may be a danger, though, in underdosage. It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body. The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough…”
To read Sir Alexander Fleming’s full Nobel lecture: Penicillin, see the link below: https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/fleming-lecture.pdf © Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 26 Oct 2018
Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel prize in 1945 for the discovery of Penicillin, the world’s first broad-spectrum antibiotic. Very early in the discovery, they established the ease with which bacteria could develop resistance to Penicillin. In Fleming’s Nobel acceptance speech he ended with a warning for future generations:

“…But I would like to sound one note of warning. Penicillin is to all intents and purposes non-poisonous so there is no need to worry about giving an overdose and poisoning the patient. There may be a danger, though, in underdosage. It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body. The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough…”
© Wellcome Genome Campus Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences
This article is from the free online

Bacterial Genomes: Disease Outbreaks and Antimicrobial Resistance

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education

close
  • 30% off Futurelearn Unlimited!