Prior to the 20th century, 25% of children didn’t live to see their first year, and 50% didn’t make it to fifteen. For real. Prior to 1900, once you were born you were just as likely to have a Sweet Sixteen as not, no matter where you were from or who your parents were. Death was pervasive, and one of the biggest discoveries in modern medicine that turned the tide against an early visit from the Reaper happened by accident.
–On This Day in History, Shit Went Down: September 28, 1928–
In 1901, President McKinley was shot in the guts and died from an infection. In 1981 President Reagan was shot, and the damage was far more dire than what McKinley suffered, yet he was saved. Part of Reagan’s treatment involved multiple antibiotics, the first of which was discovered on September 28th, 1928.
Cheese doesn’t last long enough in our house to grow mold, but sometimes bread does. When I see that shit I’m all ew gross and throw it out. Because mold is gross. And, as it turns out, also lifesaving. Did you watch Game of Thrones? Badass Dothraki Khal Drogo died from a small cut that got infected. Throughout history people died from ingrown fucking toenails. Mary Queen of Scots first husband, the king of France, died from a goddamn ear infection. Bacteria kills motherfuckers, and it was important to find a way to kill the motherfucking bacteria first.
Alexander Fleming, a Scottish physician and microbiologist, had heard the rumors. As early as the late nineteenth century researchers had posited that the mold Penicillium might contain antibacterial properties, but the process for it killing bacteria remained elusive. It’s possible that mold was known to kill bacteria long before, as there was evidence of ancient Egyptians using moldy bread as part of poultices for infected wounds. The way it works is that the fungi sees bacteria as competition and kill it.
Dr. Fleming was experimenting in the Inoculation Department of London’s St. Mary’s Hospital. He was not known for fastidiousness in his research, but rather was sloppy. Returning from vacation on September 3rd, 1928, and having left shit scattered around, he discovered that staphylococcus bacteria had accidentally contaminated a culture plate, and the plate was growing mold on it. And where there was mold, there was no staph.
He developed a hypothesis and tested it on September 28th, 1928, confirming that the “mold juice” had the ability to kill a wide range of bacteria. He published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology the following year, but uptake was slow, as penicillin was difficult to isolate and manufacture on a massive scale. It would be more than a decade before methods were developed to mass produce the drug, changing the course of modern medicine.
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