Today (September 28) in London History – Penicillin

Alexander Fleming made his hugely important discovery on September 28, 1928. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Maybe it’s not random. Maybe it’s the time of the year. A certain slant of light and all of that. 

But anyway, here we are with another late September date that’s got you’d do well to look at me written all over it. To recycle our flower bed analogy, September 28th is a flower that’s got no end of event bees excitedly buzzing around it and touching down. 

Let’s be the apiologist, the person who studies apiology, the science of bees and honey-making. 

On September 28th, 1669 the new Royal Exchange opened in the City. That’ll have been the rebuilt one, after the Great Fire of London. Hard to gainsay its importance – it was essential to the recovery of London’s commerce. 

And speaking of the Fire of London, on September 28th, 1666, barely three weeks after the fire burnt itself out, having turned 80 per cent of London into ash and the occasional blackened husk, on September 28th, 1666 they hanged the Frenchman, Robert Hubert. He’d confessed to starting the fire. He didn’t start it of course – he couldn’t have started it. He wasn’t anywhere near London when the fire began. But so what? He’d confessed and he was French.

London keeps repeating itself. Earlier this month, Chris Kaba, an unarmed 24-year-old black rapper was shot dead by a police marksman after a car chase. Echoes of the Mark Duggan case in Tottenham in north London eleven years ago. And indeed the shooting dead of Mrs Groce on September 28th, 1985 in her own home in Brixton. The police were looking for a suspect. The pulling of that trigger – what happened to Mrs. Groce sparked four days of riots in Brixton. 

On September 28th, 1928 Parliament passed the Dangerous Drugs Act, outlawing cannabis. 

Well, that’s just a quick run-through of some of what’s on the dance card for September 28th.

Like the Dangerous Drugs Act, the September 28th event I want to partner with also happened in 1928. That was quite a day in London history, wouldn’t you say.

Let’s bring the spotlight up on our main act by hearing from the gentleman himself. 

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up after dawn that day I certainly did not plan to revolutionise medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic or bacteria killer. But I suppose that’s what I did.”

The speaker of course was Sir Alexander Fleming.

The antibiotic was, needless to say, penicillin.

The place was St Mary’s Hospital Paddington. 

Fleming had just come back from a two-week holiday. And here’s where the story gets really fascinating. The discovery of penicillin hung by the finest of threads. Luck was a huge factor. First of all, it was important that Fleming took a two-week holiday in Suffolk. That gave the mould time to grow. Secondly they were lucky with the temperature. It was an unusually warm September. 

The temperature was right for the mould culture to grow. Had those two weeks been in the normal September range the growth would not have occurred. Thirdly, the airborne mould had to get into Fleming’s laboratory. He’d left a window partly open. Nobody knows for sure where the mould came from. The pub across the street from St Mary’s likes to boast that it was the source of the parent mould. That it got out of the door of the pub, wafted across the street on an air current, made its way through that slightly cracked open window in Fleming’s office and found its way to that petri dish. Well, who knows? But in a weird way it’s fitting that the pub – tongue firmly in cheek – tells that story. Because while Alexander Fleming is the headline act, the fact of the matter is it took the work of many scientists to bring his discovery to fruition. 

I think my favourite links in the serendipity chain, though, are 1) Fleming’s being a sloppy housekeeper. A messy male. Prior to heading off on his holiday he’d piled up several Petri dishes containing bacteria. Piled them up and neglected to seal them properly.

That was the opening the airborne mould needed. It got in there, touched down, and thanks to having a few days to get on with its operations and the temperature being right, it did its thing. The second favourite link in the serendipity chain is that it was Fleming who picked up the dirty dish. Had it been a cleaning lady she would have seen a dirty dish and washed it clean. They caught a break there. The cleaning lady’s instinct was one response to a messy, mouldy dish. Alexander Fleming was a bacteriologist. He picked up that dish and saw a halo of inhibited bacteria growth around the mould. His response, in words, was “that’s interesting.” The cleaning lady’s response would have been, “ugh, that’s filthy, that needs some soap and hot water. Why is this man so messy?”

Luck. Sometimes humanity just gets lucky. Any one of those conditions – the hot days, the holiday, the open window, the dirty dish, the cleaning lady not getting in there – doesn’t get met Alexander Fleming doesn’t discover the world’s first antibiotic on this day in 1928.

And a Today in London recommendation. Well, chances are you’ll have guessed. Alexander Fleming’s laboratory – in exactly its 1928 condition – it’s as if the intervening 94 years never happened – Alexander Fleming’s laboratory is a museum. Some museum. In 1999, the Museum was declared an International Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

It’s open Monday to Thursday from 10 o’clock to 1 pm. By advance appointment only. It’s well worth a visit. I speak from experience. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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