With a day off work and nothing definite to do, I decided to head down to the Fleming Museum in Paddington. Named after renowned scientist Sir Alexander Fleming, the museum commemorates his discovery of penicillin, a hugely significant event that changed the course of medical history and saved thousands of lives.
Entrance to the museum (now closed) as you enter the hospital courtyard
The museum is located on the second floor of St Mary’s Hospital, which has a long and distinguished history itself, having been founded in 1845. As you turn in to the entrance from Praed Street you can see the sign for the museum; however, to enter you must go into the hospital main entrance and follow the corridor round.
Small as the museum is, it occupies several floors: first there is a reception room, which has a few information boards, then you go upstairs and into the shop where you purchase your ticket. You can leave bags and coats in here.
The first part of a visit comprises a tour – if that is the correct word considering it only encompasses one room – of the very room in which Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. Though the layout and fittings are not wholly original – the room was restored at a later date and the space was reproduced to reflect its condition at the time of the discovery – the fact that it is the original room in the first place is pretty impressive. The view from the second floor window is largely what it would have been in the 1920s, and it’s easy to imagine yourself back in time.
The museum guides are all volunteers, and are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. My guide was extremely interesting as he explained the context behind Fleming’s work and how he came to make his discovery. About to go on holiday, Fleming left a petri dish by the window, and when he returned six weeks later he noticed that something in the dish seemed to be killing the bacteria that had contaminated it. The original petri dish is now in the British Library: the one on display here is a replica.
One aspect of the story in particular I found really enlightening. In the past I’d always assumed that Fleming’s discovery was wholly down to luck – that he’d left the petri dish out by mistake and noticed the mould by chance. However, my guide explained that Fleming would routinely leave petri dishes out for a while and check them, just in case. It wasn’t just luck that facilitated the discovery of penicillin – Fleming’s deep scientific knowledge and inquiring mind played important roles too.
Having said that, it was not Fleming himself who developed the drug to explore its full potential, but two scientists at Oxford, Australian Howard Florey and German refugee Ernst Chain. It was 1940, and they wanted a drug that would be effective on troops at the front.
The development of penicillin got off to a shaky start. At first, members of the team employed to test it tried it on themselves. The first member of the public to receive penicillin, a policeman, showed impressive signs of recovery, but unfortunately the penicillin ran out and he relapsed and died. On a similar note, the drug was used on a young boy suffering from an eye infection. He miraculously recovered, but sadly the infection had damaged his carotid artery, and he died from a hemorrhage. I couldn’t help feeling that these incidences would have been more traumatic for the friends and family of the sufferers than if they had just died in the first place – this way, their hopes were raised only to be dashed again.
The next part of the museum, up another flight of stairs, involves watching a short video about the discovery and how it progressed, followed by a small exhibition room which you can explore at your leisure. The information boards in the room charted the story of penicillin, repeating some of the information I had already learned, but adding new snippets. For instance, I learned more details about the initial testing of the drug, and the efforts that were made to stabilise the chemical compound, as well as the problems faced in ensuring enough penicillin was produced to meet demand.
In modern times, it is well known that drug-resistant strains of bacteria are developing in response to the use of penicillin and other antibiotics. In fact, Fleming himself predicted that this would be a problem, and it was an issue almost right from the start, with scientists having to come up with new ways of adapting the drug to stay one step ahead of the bacteria.
Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work with penicillin. It is thanks to them, and to this “wonder drug”, that we are able to take antibiotics for granted, and there are diseases nowadays considered mild that at one time could have been fatal. It doesn’t have the most convenient opening times, but it’s worth making the effort to visit this small but fascinating museum.
Plaque on Praed Street commemorating the discovery of penicillin
Address: St Mary’s Hospital, Praed Street, London, W2 1NY
Opening Hours: Mon-Thurs 10am-1pm; other times by appointment only
Prices: £4 adults, £2 concessions