Sep. 28, 2010


by George Bilgere

In the summer twilight,
a couple of hours after dinner,
we like to take a walk.
The birds have turned in.
The air has finally cooled,
but the crickets and katydids
are getting so worked up
that the lightning bugs catch fire
a few feet above the lawn,
just where we left them
when we were kids.

Now and then
we pass another couple
from one of the green, old,
more or less identical
streets of our neighborhood
as they move through the atmosphere,
mystical and obscure,
their voices softly registering
the news of the summer.

Good evening,
we say to each other.
Lovely night, isn't it.
What a scorcher, we say
with gratitude and affection
for this shared mystery
of being human
on this dark little planet,
on one of the slender,
gracefully swirling arms
of one of the smaller galaxies.

"Scorcher" by George Bilgere. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1928 that Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming peered into a petri dish at his basement laboratory in London and noticed a blue-green mold growing. The mold, he observed, was killing the staph bacteria he'd been cultivating in that petri dish. He called the mold "penicillin." Penicillin is now considered the world's first "miracle drug," and it sparked the modern era of antibiotic development.

Fleming's discovery of penicillin on this day 82 years ago has often been called serendipitous. He'd left the petri dish out by accident instead of putting it away in the incubator, and then he'd gone off on holiday for a couple weeks. The damp, chilly London air had given the mold the right conditions to grown in.

But, as scientist Pasteur said, fortune favors the prepared mind. When Fleming looked into the dish and saw that blue-green mold and the growth pattern of the bacteria, he deduced that the moldy bit must be the thing that was preventing the bacteria from spreading. Noticing that penicillin was an anti-bacterial agent was a big deal, but it was still many steps away from making penicillin the world's most effective antibiotic. To do this, scientists needed to find a way to purify the mold — and then a way to mass-produce it.

It took a team of Oxford scientists, a Rockefeller foundation grant, and more than a decade of experimenting to make the strain of penicillin that would become the amazingly effective infection-fighting, lifesaving antibiotic that it is today. The task became extra urgent with the start of World War II. Soldiers would survive a wound in battle only to be killed by a nasty infection from that wound later. Penicillin could cure these infections.

The team of scientists working on purifying penicillin moved their lab out of England, for fear that it would be bombed, and over to the U.S. There they experimented with the best way to grow large amounts of penicillin. They used big vats for fermenting the mold. They found that the mold from a moldy cantaloupe was the best kind of mold to start with. And they found that dumping in a by-product from corn production called corn steep liquor really helped — it made their penicillin broth about 15 times more productive. They shot UV rays and X-rays at their molds, hoping to make more productive strains. They knew they had finally succeeded when they gave lab mice lethal doses of bacteria, and then used penicillin to save the lives of those mice.

Penicillin works to kill bacteria because it prevents bacteria from correctly forming new cell walls. Without the new cell walls, the cells cannot divide properly, and so they cannot reproduce, and so the bacteria die off.

Fleming and the scientists who purified penicillin won the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine. There are several versions of penicillin now, and they are still prescribed to treat a variety of infections. It's the most widely used antibiotic in history.

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings on October 14, and on Christmas Day, he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey.

The Norman invasion had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

It's the birthday of Kate Douglas Wiggin, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia (1856), who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and many other novels. She also started the first free kindergarten on the West Coast, in San Francisco.

It's the birthday of Al Capp, (books by this author) born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, Connecticut (1909), who created the comic strip "Li'l Abner."

It's the birthday of the last television host who tried to appeal to everyone in America, Ed Sullivan, born in Manhattan, New York City (1902), who hosted The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS from 1948 to 1971.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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