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The Providential Discovery of Penicillin

The Providential Discovery of Penicillin

Are you sick of being sick?

Do you dread slipping into that “much needed” sleep, only to be awoken by sounds down the hall of fussing, coughing, or worse?

Although your natural reaction in these moments might not be to praise God for His providential care, remember the suffering of past generations, suffering that had no pharmacy to call, no antibiotics to give.  Throughout history, mothers have held these late night vigils without knowing that they could call the doctor in the morning and see things significantly improve in the next twenty four hours! Praise God for His gracious gift of Penicillin!

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, God told them that they would surely die. We know that they did die, spiritually, but the phrase, “thou shalt surely die,” means more than this.  In Hebrew it literally means, “dying you shall die.” One commentary puts it this way, “Death at once began its work; and a train of miseries, afflictions, and diseases began to appear, which at length, issued in death.” And so, bit by bit, from birth we die, struggling and suffering until our final moment. But God is merciful.  Not only has He personally overcome death, but He has also provided means to ease the misery of the curse while we are still alive. And this is what happened in the providential discovery of the famous antibiotic, penicillin.

In the early 20th century, scientists were searching for effective antibiotics. Antiseptics could not reach bacteria sheltered in wounds below the skin’s surface. Worse, they destroyed the white blood cells essential to the body’s natural immune system. As a result, during WWI, about half of the 10 million soldiers who died, perished not from explosives, bullets, or shrapnel, but from infections in relatively mild wounds. A safe, antibacterial substance needed to be found.

One British scientist, Alexander Fleming, was studying cultures of Staphylococcus bacteria. Mid-way through the summer, he went on vacation, leaving about forty Petri dishes of the bacteria on his work bench. When he returned to work two months later, he began clearing this pile of plates, placing them into a shallow tray of disinfectant. Greeting a former lab assistant, Fleming began complaining about his busy workload. To demonstrate, Fleming carelessly grabbed one dish which had providentially remained safely above the Lysol.

Upon closer examination, Fleming noticed something strange. Although bacterial colonies covered most of the plate, there was one spot where they came to a screeching halt, forming a translucent ring around something they clearly did not like: a giant patch of mold.  What’s more, the bacteria closest to the mold were clearly disintegrating, as if the mold was releasing something so potent that it was killing them by the millions.

Fleming realized that this mold, Penicillium, was killing the Staphylococcus, and soon found it also killed bacteria known to cause other important human diseases.  Moreover, it was remarkably nontoxic to the body’s infection fighting white blood cells. When Penicillin was ultimately manufactured and mass produced, it became one of our most powerful weapons in treating pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, gangrene, tuberculosis, scarlet fever and childbirth infections. It triggered invaluable discoveries of many other antibiotics and allowed for safer surgical operations, organ transplants, and even open heart surgery.

Yet, as amazing as this “accidental” discovery was, we can see God’s providential hand even more clearly when we learn the rest of the story.

First, the mold required to make Penicillin was specific and rare – not just any fungus growing on the bathroom wall. When scientists later began an intensive search to find an equally effective penicillin producer, they found only two others out of one thousand samples tested. Fleming himself tried to reproduce his original discovery, searching through scores of different molds, from cheese to bread and shoes to dirt, but he never uncovered another with such antibacterial activity.

Where did this special mold come from?  Ultimately, it was traced to a mycology laboratory on the floor below. Amazingly, its spore wafted up the stairwell to settle on one of Fleming’s dishes precisely when its lid happened to be removed. Even this would have had to occur at a precise moment. The penicillin mold only acts on microbes when they are young and actively multiplying. If the mold spore had deposited later, the established bacterial growth would have prevented multiplication of the Penicillium spores and would have not have been affected by them.

So, a rare floating spore had to navigate up a stairwell, enter the lab, land on an open Petri dish that was usually covered, all precisely when the bacteria were young enough to be attacked?


But that isn’t all. God also controlled the weather. Meteorological records show that an intense heat wave, which would have prevented the growth of the Penicillium spore, broke on the day that Fleming opened the dish.  The following cool spell created excellent conditions for mold growth. Later, just when the mold was sufficiently mature to release its deadly penicillin, weather records show that the temperature warmed again, allowing the bacteria to grow, come into contact with the mold, and die.

And God still wasn’t finished! While scientists searched around the world for a potent mold source for penicillin, it was providentially found right in the town where the scientists were already working, on a rotten cantaloupe! This mold was called Penicillium chrysogenum, and it produced 3,000 times more penicillin than Fleming’s original mold, finally making mass commercial production of penicillin possible.

In a world suffering from pain and disease, discoveries like penicillin are truly God’s gracious gift.  When scientists make their discoveries methodically and intentionally, we must thank God for giving them their incredible abilities.  But, in a discovery like this, God is shown to be totally, marvelously in control.  Fleming himself said, “I might have claimed that I [believed] that valuable antibacterial substances could be made by molds [based on] serious study… and deep thought. That would have been untrue…penicillin started as a chance observation…it came out of the blue.”

Not out of the blue, Mr. Fleming – it came straight from the providential hand of God!