We all make mistakes—it’s just another part of life. But what if a simple error on your part led to one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time? What if it went on to save the lives of millions of people? What if it was so monumental that you were given the honor of being knighted by the king himself? This is exactly what happened to Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish physician, when he discovered the world’s first antibiotic in 1927. The story began when Fleming served as a captain for the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I. While stationed at battlefield hospitals along the Western Front in France, Fleming noticed that many soldiers who sustained wounds were not dying from the trauma itself but from bad infections. The only medicine available to treat infections at that time were antiseptics but they usually just made injuries worse. After the war ended, Fleming joined St. Mary’s Hospital as a microbiologist and began researching antibacterial drugs [1]. Despite years of research, he did not make a lot of progress.

Then in 1927, something truly amazing occurred. Fleming was studying characteristics of Staphylococcus, a fairly common bacterium that causes a wide array of diseases in humans. Before leaving for a summer vacation to Scotland, Fleming neglected to clean his lab table and left a pile of dirty Petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus in the corner. Upon his return, he noticed that some type of fungus had grown inside the dishes and had managed to stunt the surrounding Staphylococcus growth. He was confused but curious about the properties of the strange fungus. After further experimentation, he was able to isolate the anti-bacterial product produced by the fungus. He named it penicillin [2].

In 1942, Anne Miller became the first patient to successfully be treated with penicillin. She had a miscarriage and was dying from an infection that causes blood poisoning.2 Because of its accidental discovery, more than 200 million lives have been saved. Penicillin can be used to combat a plethora of diseases including syphilis, tuberculosis, and pneumonia.1 Additionally, the antibiotic age led to the development of many other branches of medicine including organ transplantation and cancer therapies [3]. In other words, I can confidently say that this was one instance where putting off doing the dishes was a good idea.


  1. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Alexander_Fleming

  2. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic

  3. https://www.reactgroup.org/antibiotic-resistance/course-antibiotic-resistance-the-silent-tsunami/part-1/the-discovery-of-antibiotics/