Hadn’t it been for a Portuguese PhD student, Fleming would never have discovered penicillin!

I am a bit tired of hearing about Fleming’s wonderful insight into the discovery of penicillin. So I decided to tell the real story, which was told to me by the person who met Flemming and gave him the idea to research the antibiotic properties of Penicillium. I was having dinner at his house when all of a sudden he started a conversation about the time he was working on his PhD.

Here in the words of Manuel Pinheiro Nunes, who was a Professor of Microbiology at the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Lisbon.

“ Well,  I was a young PhD student at the  Hospital of Madrid” and Fleming was visiting.  I had a bad week since my bacterial colony would not grow. So I went to the Director’s office who was also my supervisor, to complain about the fact that there were molds in the lab and they were growing on my plates inhibiting the bacterial growth. There was this English man sitting in the director’s office to whom I was introduced as a Portuguese PhD student. I learned that his name was Fleming.

The director asked me to show the Petri dishes and quickly decided that I should drop them in the rubbish and start again.  I asked for permission to change my  PhD line of inquiry and research why that blue mold, which I identified as Penicillium, would not let the bacteria grow. The director just said NO and was adamant that I should throw it in the bin.

Then Fleming came to me and asked if he could have a look. I showed him the plates. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind if he kept the plates and took them to England.  Who was I to deny? After all, I was just a mere PhD student! So he took the Petri dishes to England and the rest of the story is well known. Hadn’t it been for the stubbornness of my supervisor I would have been to one to have discovered penicillin and get that Nobel Prize. “

Then his face eyes became vacant as if he was ruminating on that injustice.

I wondered for a bit if this event could explain the quasi-permanent darkness and numbness of his personality. But then I thought that it might be just because he was old and lonely.

Some months later Professor Manuel  Pinheiro  Nunes died. As far as I can remember he might have been as much as eighty-something years old (maybe 82) and the year of his death might have been 1979 because this was the last year I was at the Faculty of Pharmacy and I changed to the Faculty of Sciences to study Biology.

The night before he died we paid him a visit to check on his health. He had caught a cold and the maid was worried. He was in bed, looking very weak and pale. Then he said something like he had visit of an angel the night before telling him he was going to die. He even commented about the experience saying that since he was an atheist, this angel might have been a creation of his mind.

I wanted to tell this story before I  forgot it. I think this should be included in the history of Fleming’s discovery of penicillin.

As in the case of Pinheiro Nunes, I wonder how many more PhD and Graduate students go through similar situations, triggering research ideas in the minds of established scientists that end up taking all the credit.


NOTE: This story was told by an 82-year-old man. He said this happened in Madrid, but actually, he was in Paris at the Institut Pasteur at age 32 doing his PhD at the same time Fleming visited the place.  It is likely that he made a mistake of memory when he mentioned Spain.

At this age, memories may get confused in relation to places and times. But I think that the fact that he met Fleming might have remained strong in his memory and doubting its veracity it may be out of the question.


About Anuska

I like to think about the facts of life and question them

Posted on 09/28/2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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