Penicillin: The Magic Bullet

Penicillin: The Magic Bullet

Streaming Video - 2015
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In the late 1920's, Alexander Fleming worked on a mould called penicillium and its ability to attack bacteria. But his laboratory notes reveal that he abandoned work on the substance convinced it would never work in living tissue. Ten years later, Australian Howard Florey found Fleming's article and hand picked a team at Oxford to try to crack the problems which had defeated Fleming. In those days, Scientists mostly worked alone but it was the genius of Howard Florey to recognise that it was a multidisciplinary team, including chemists as well as those medically trained that would take medical science to the next stage. Florey was known as "The Bushranger" because of his rough Australian manner and his success at raising research funds.   He was universally regarded as the best pathologist in England. The bio-chemist he recruited was the temperamental and gifted Ernst Chain. The exciteable Chain was a difficult but highly talented Jewish refugee from Germany. The third vital member was an Englishman, Norman Heatley. Heatley was a painfully shy man, but a genius at making laboratory equipment. Heatley made the first production plant using five pounds worth of dairy equipment; glass he had blown himself; some old bookshelves, and an alarm clock. Unlocking the secret of the unstable penicillium mould has been described as like trying to herd butterflies. But after two strenuous years, with almost no money and only basic equipment, the Oxford team had extracted a thimble full of powder from the mould, just enough to inject the first patient. But despite a relay race on bicycles transporting the patient's urine back to the lab to recover minute amounts of penicillin, the patient recovered, then relapsed and died as the powder ran out.  They then focussed their trials on critically-ill children because they needed less penicillin. But they proved the stuff worked. Buoyed by their results and with penicillium spores rubbed into the cloth of their coats to prevent it falling into German hands, Florey and Heatley made a secret flight to America - - to convince US drug companies to begin production in large quantities. They made little progress at first, but then with the attack on Pearl Harbour, America entered the war and an anti bacterial medicine, even one with limited clinical results, seemed like good idea. Then Alexander Fleming telephoned Howard Florey to ask Florey for a sample of the new medicine to treat a sick friend, Florey gave Fleming their entire supply. He could not know that his act of generosity would rob him and his team of most of the public credit for the world's first antibiotic. The Oxford team, having succeeded in working the miracle of a medicine which would empty half the western worlds hospital wards,  watched in dismay as a rival hospital and the British wartime propaganda machine stepped in and gave all the credit to Fleming.  In the years that followed, Fleming - for his own reasons perhaps - never put the record straight.  This program sets out to do just that. Three men shared the Nobel Prize in 1945  -  Fleming, Florey and Chain (Heatley, a mere laboratory technician missed out)  -   and a measure of justice was achieved.  But by then the original 'spin' had entered popular culture and almost every book since on great discoveries refers to Fleming alone as the discoverer of penicillin. Producer and Director:  Gordon Glenn ATOM Study Guide included
Publisher: [San Francisco, California, USA] : Kanopy Streaming, 2015
Branch Call Number: eVideo
Characteristics: 1 online resource (streaming video file)
Additional Contributors: Kanopy (Firm)

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