It was in a small, cramped laboratory in St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington that a discovery was made that quite literally changed the world. In September 1928, when Alexander Fleming returned from his summer holiday he found a surprise in his Petri dish of bacteria, “That’s funny!” he said, because it had been contaminated with a strange mould.
What was so strange about this mould?
It had killed the bacteria. Since its discovery that September morning – I imagine it was morning; I like to think that Fleming would make the final checks on his previous experiment before starting something new, but I could be mistaken – this mould, penicillin, has helped to save countless lives.
The laboratory has since been turned into a small, virtually hidden museum which tells the story of Alexander Fleming and his amazing discovery. The big blue plaque on the wall helps point you in the right direction, but finding the actual door proves to be a bit of a struggle, pressing the buzzer confirms that you are, indeed, in the right place. So that’s all good.
The very friendly staff welcome you to the museum and lead you up the twisty staircase to the famous lab and tell you the story.
And what a story! Both Penicillin and its discoverer are fascinating, quirky subjects to learn about. The wonder-drug (originally dubbed ‘Mould Juice’) failed to clear up a case of sinusitis in an early test, but worked fine on an eye infection, and apparently tasted like stilton cheese.
Fleming was a character too, an artist whose preferred medium was not paints but rather coloured moulds. He also gifted Petri dishes of penicillin instead of thank you cards; apparently the Duke of Edinburgh has quite a collection.
According to the museum, the original Petri Dish is in the British Museum somewhere. If it is, how comes it isn’t one of the 100 objects, eh Neil?
There is something of the eccentric about this little place; a touch of the oddball along with the genius. Perhaps it comes from the museum and its staff really capturing the essence of Fleming’s unique personality. Whatever its source, this is a great science museum.
St. Mary’s Hospital,
Praed Street, W2 1NY
Monday-Thursday 10.00-13.00, or by appointment
Children and concessions: £2