I have very clear, happy memories of many family vacations throughout my childhood, but there is one not so great memory that sticks out in my mind. It was the year my mother decided we needed to first deep-clean the house and then leave so it would stay that way.
I wasn’t a very neat kid. My room was always a disaster, with toys and books everywhere, and with who knows what growing on the slightly damp balled up socks in the corner of the closet. As the youngest during that pre-vacation cleaning spree, my job was to scrub window sills and to clean up my disaster of a bedroom. I’m not sure what year it was, or what trip we were headed out on, but I do know for certain that we came home to a clean space.
That wasn’t the case for Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming when he returned to his lab in September of 1928 after a two-week family vacation. He found the lab exactly as he’d left it, a jumbled mess of half-finished experiments and dirty glassware. It seems Fleming never consulted with my mother on the joys of returning home to a clean space.
After his vacation, Fleming found himself sorting through petri dishes filled with growing staphylococcus that had been left in a pile in the corner of the room while he was gone. When he got to one that was overwhelmed by growth of an unidentified mold, he might have simply said “Ew” and thrown it into the sink, or at least the corner of the closet.
But fortunately, he didn’t. Instead, Fleming said, “That’s funny.” As he looked at the dish more closely he noticed that where the mold thrived, the bacteria didn’t. He set to work identifying the funky growth as belonging to the penicillium family, and hypothesized that the “mould juice” it produced had an antibacterial effect.
In 1929, he changed the name of his antibacterial substance from “mould juice” to the sciencier sounding “penicillin” and published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. The article went largely unnoticed for several years as Fleming attempted to further his research, only to discover that without some help from a chemist or two, he couldn’t be sure that mould juice was worth the effort.
Help arrived shortly after Fleming had officially given up. Pathologist Howard Florey and Biochemist Ernst Chain read Fleming’s long-overlooked article and began experimenting with Penicillin in mice, finding that it cured them of their mousy bacterial infections. All they needed was a way to mass produce Fleming’s mould juice. They headed to America, dropped that pesky “u” and found that Illinois produce was particularly good for growing mold (a point of pride, I’ve no doubt, for my state of origin).
All three men were awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of what remains one of the greatest leaps forward in modern medicine, leading to the discovery and production of many more antibiotics, stopping infections and saving countless lives, all because Alexander Fleming didn’t bother to clean his room.
I admit that I have not shared this story with my children. You see, much to my mother’s surprise, I grew up to be a somewhat tidy housekeeper. And my sons definitely complain when I assign them the task of cleaning their disastrous bedrooms (and sometimes the window sills, because I have an aversion to the task).
But when my oldest son, who has had a cold for over a week, woke up the other night, screaming with terrible ear pain, I was grateful for the slovenly habits of Dr. Fleming. The next day I took him to the doctor, who looked in his angry ears and prescribed him an antibiotic. He stayed home from school, taking it easy the rest of the day. As he started to feel better, I confess I considered making him clean his room. I didn’t, because you never know what might be growing on the slightly damp balled up socks in the corner of the closet.