Alexander Fleming Washes His
Petri Dish by Jeff Provine
says: we're very pleased to present a new story from Jeff Provine's
excellent blog This
Day in Alternate History. Please note that the opinions expressed in
this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).
By September 28th 1928,
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having just returned from a holiday,
Scottish Professor of Bacteriology Alexander Fleming came back to his lab
in St. Mary's Hospital, London, where he had been studying Staphylococcus.
One of his stacked petri dishes had been left open, and blue-green mold
had begun to grow inside.
Around the mold, the bacteria had been diminished, as if growth had not
only been inhibited, but the bacteria destroyed.
"A world where antibiotics came in later would look
very different to ours...the sexual revolution might have been delayed,
among other things. " - reader's comments
"That's funny," Fleming
said, but went about his business washing the contaminant and turning back
to the research at hand.
Life in the world would go on, and Fleming would become somewhat famous
for his work against antisceptics in deep-tissue surgery. Surgeries and
doctor's offices continued to be places of potential hazard. Lessons
learned from the Second World War taught that sterilization and natural
immunity were the best methods for defense, but infection was nearly a
death certificate itself. Pneumonia, scarlet fever, and diptheria ran
through populations periodically, minor plagues that even advanced
societies had to suffer through.
"But antibiotics might not have come that much
later. So-called "sulfa" drugs (hinted at in this scenario) were
successfully used in the 1930s; penicillin was seen as superior because it
had fewer side effects, but the sulfa compounds (and no, that's not a
misspelling) worked. If penicillin hadn't been discovered, such medicines
might have been used longer and perhaps perfected so as to eliminate or at
least reduce their side effects (or perhaps they might have been taken
with other medications designed to deal with those effects). For that
matter, in the Soviet Union, whose medical researchers were cut off for
years from contact with their Western counterparts, successful antibiotic
treatments were developed using "phages," bacteria which eat other
bacteria. So even without penicillin, alternatives might have existed
which would have forestalled " - reader's comments
In 2000, as
something of a miraculous discovery, doctors at the San Juan de Dios
Hospital in San Jose ,Costa Rica, published the papers of Dr. Clodomiro
Picado Twight. Dr. Picado was internationally known for his research with
snake venom and cures, but it seemed that he had discovered a practical
antibiotic as early as 1927. He had observed the fungus Penicillium
inhibiting the growth of streptococci and staphylococci (which Fleming had
seen, but not noticed). He had submitted a paper to the Paris Academy of
Sciences, but it had not made an impression.
"Great point. Engineered phages might be slow in
coming with the principles of DNA still waiting to be discovered as well
as computing necessary to do it, but this TL would have a huge head start
on where we are. Otherwise, it'd be dealing with hefty side effects, which
we do anyway. I'd like to see a TL where cancer is cured by something
other than near-lethal radiation. " - author's response
papers were published anew, commentary was written on the use of the
fungus in folk medicine since the Middle Ages. Several European
researchers had noticed its effects, even Tyndall in 1875 and Lister in
1871, but neither embraced the potential. Modern advancements in
biochemistry had looked into the possibilities of antibiotics, finding a
few such as the sulfomides and the quinolones that each severe side
effects, but this natural product seemed like a place for renewed
research. As early tests began to show great promise, pharmaceutical
companies raced to patent a Wonder Drug.
The drug Penicillin would be branded in 2010 after isolation, synthesis,
and FDA approval. While immunity among bacteria has been detected from
under-use, the chemical structure for Penicillin enables easy modification
for renewed effectiveness. Mass production began quickly, opening up huge
markets for antibiotics in every hospital, office, and home in the world.
First and third world death rates are expected to plummet alike.
Conversely, of course, if birth rates do not decrease like death rates, it
can be expected that world population may reach as much as three and a
half billion by 2025. With the Earth supporting such a surge of new life,
pollution and social ills are expected to grow exponentially.
says in reality Dr. Fleming took great interest in the petri dish that
had caused him to utter the famous words, "That's funny!" He tested the mold
for a decade before contacting chemists Ernst Chain and Howard Florey into
isolating and concentrating the chemical he had dubbed "penicillin" after
calling it "mould juice" for some months. The war effort of World War 2
pushed for maximized production of penicillin, enough to treat every soldier
during the D-Day invasion. For their efforts, Fleming and Florey would
receive knighthoods in 1944, and Fleming, Florey, and Chain would share the
1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
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Jeff Provine, Guest Historian of
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