Hadn’t been for a Portuguese PhD student, Fleming would never have discovered penicillin!
I am a bit tired of hearing about Fleming’s wonderful insight in the discovery of penicillin. So I decided to tell the real story, so it can remain for posterity and for historians to rectify the story.
“ 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 the office of the Director which was my supervisor to complain about the fact that there were moulds 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 learnt that his name was Fleming.
The director asked me to show the Petri dishes and quickly decided that I should drop it in the rubbish and start again. I asked for permission to change my PhD line of enquiry and research why that blue mould which I identified as Penicilium 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 in 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 having changed to the Faculty of Sciences to do Biology.
The night before he died we paid him a visit to check on his heath. 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 the 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 the case of Pinheiro Nunes, I wonder how many more PhD and Graduate students go through similar cases, sparking research ideas on established scientists that end up taking all the credit.
I think that justice must be made to those who are creative and feed the ideas and works of others who later become famous, for without these ideas, they might never have thought about it.
NOTE: This story was told by an 82 year old man. He said this happened in Madrid, but actually he was in Paris at age 32 doing his PhD but when Fleming did visit Paris during that period. 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 the he met Fleming might have remained strongly in his memory and doubting its veracity it may be out of the question.