Penicillin—A Love Story


This week’s entry is a little late, but I have a good excuse. In researching this week’s topic, I stumbled upon a medical mystery. Here’s the story …

February 14 is Valentine’s Day—a day for chocolate, roses, and romance. But my Valentine was winging his way to Vienna for work. (I know. But someone has to do it!) So for me, there was no chocolate. No roses. No romance. (Full disclosure: we did share a heart-shaped pizza a couple of days before he left and exchanged eCards on the day.) Ordinarily a holiday would be a great blog post, but I didn’t feel much like writing about the history of the day meant for kisses and sweet nothings. Although I could have played up the really gory aspects—beheaded priests and all that (True story. But maybe next year.)—I decided to see what else happened on February 14 (besides the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which has been done to death [Rimshot!]).

And there it was on the History Channel’s This Day in History website: February 14, 1929—Penicillin Discovered. Awesome. I can’t take it—I’m allergic—but I can write about it. So, as any good historian would do, I began to investigate the facts of this premise: penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) on Valentine’s Day in 1929. The trouble began with the sources. I could find dozens, hundreds and thousands even, that made similar claims to the History Channel, but I couldn’t find any primary source material to back it up.


Digging deeper, I determined Fleming had actually made the discovery in September 1928. He was studying bacteria at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, England, and he noticed odd patterns in one of his cultures that had been contaminated by spores of Penicillium (likely from another lab in the building).  The Penicillium mold prevented the Staphylococcus bacteria from growing in an area around the spores. Further experiments by Fleming followed, and he learned that the mold was harmless to animals and prevented Staphylococcus growth even when diluted. He also noted that the penicillin (Fleming’s name for the active substance) was not very stable because it quickly lost strength.

Obviously then, Fleming did not discover penicillin on Valentine’s Day. I returned to the sources. Some said he actually “announced” the discovery on February 14.  Possible. I started a new line of research. Perhaps his first paper on the subject was published on February 14, 1929. Again, I was stymied. Fleming’s work first appeared in The British Journal of Experimental Pathology, which helpfully noted the article had been “received for publication May 10, 1929”—definitely not Valentine’s Day.


More research followed—for me and for penicillin. I read about the other investigators who helped to develop penicillin, including Oxford University researchers, Howard Florey (1898–1968) and Ernst Chain (1906–1979). In a collaboration that began in the late 1930s, Florey and Chain (and others in their lab) purified penicillin and discovered therapeutic uses; however, production and scale were still issues, especially with the start of World War II (1939–1945) in Europe. These problems would be solved in partnership with a lab in Peoria, Illinois, and large scale production would go on to save many soldiers from infection during the war and many civilians in the years after.** Fleming, Florey, and Chain won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 for their contributions.

Fleming, a modest man, remarked: “I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident.” But it would probably be more accurate to say he rediscovered it. It turns out that Fleming was not the first person to note the abilities of Penicillium! Others had witnessed molds’ healing ability, including a medical student, Ernest Duchesne (1874–1912), whose thesis, “Contribution to the study of vital competition in microorganisms: Antagonism between moulds and microbes,” also considered the therapeutic values of molds. The year? 1897. And there were others before Duchesne. Unfortunately for modern medicine, Duchesne died before he could continue his research, and Duchesne’s work went largely unnoticed at the time. It took Fleming and his contaminated sample to get the idea noticed.


But not on February 14! I searched again, trying to find the “patient zero” for the History Channel article. Who had Fleming told on February 14? His wife? The milkman? The story must have started somewhere! I mentioned the problem to my husband (a scientist, but not a bacteriologist) via a Skype chat (because remember he is still in Vienna, poor thing!) and asked him where a British scientist might make such an announcement. He suggested the Royal Society.  And I was off pulling another thread in my attempt at unraveling the Valentine’s Day conundrum, even though my research had now run to dozens of hours over several days. “Why bother?” You ask. Because (A) I’m frustrated by unsolved mysteries, (B) misinformation irritates me, and (C) I’m stubborn. (Full disclosure: friends and family would probably say it is mostly C!)  So now it was a matter of principle!

Cleared for Launch

I checked the records of the Royal Society. Nada. I searched for medical conferences held in February 1929. Zilch. I planned an alternate blog post in case I failed. And frankly, I was beginning to think that was the one that would run. But then, I found it. No fanfare (although I confess, the trumpeters were playing jubilantly in my head!), no ticker-tape parade, just a single reference. Could it be? I checked and triple checked. I wasn’t going to publish this unless I was sure. I found other sources to confirm, and I am pleased to announce the following:

Alexander Fleming presented some of his work on penicillin at the Medical Research Club in London on February 13, 1929.

That’s right. The day before Valentine’s Day. Where the Valentine’s Day mythos began is anyone’s guess. Perhaps someone thought it would be funny if the antibiotic that cures some sexually transmitted diseases was discovered on Valentine’s Day and fudged the date. Perhaps the initial error was a typo. Perhaps, it was lazy research. Regardless, the premise that penicillin was discovered (or even announced) by Alexander Fleming on Valentine’s Day in 1929 is completely debunked. Sorry History Channel. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Text: ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Alexander Fleming in his lab.
Original via Wikimedia; edits Rebecca Bigelow.

**On a personal note, penicillin came to the market too late to save my uncle (on my father’s side) who died in 1931, at the age of six, from complications from strep throat. Penicillin probably would have saved him, but 1943 was the year mass production of penicillin began—coincidentally, the year my father turned six.

Additional Reading:

This Day in History

Fleming and Penicillin History

Some of the Sources for February 13, 1929

Wild(life) Weather


February 2 was Groundhog Day. The day plays host to a somewhat bizarre ritual in the United States and Canada in which people haul a rodent out of its burrow and hold it up to see if it sees its shadow. Tradition holds that if the groundhog sees its shadow, we get to suffer through six more weeks of winter. No shadow? Early Spring! On Saturday, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous of the groundhog prognosticators, predicted early spring. Woot! But it turns out Phil is right only about 40 percent of the time.


In fact, I’ve long thought that if Punxsutawney Phil’s people flipped the predictor, Phil would be far more precise. After all, if the groundhog sees his shadow, the sky must be clear. Surely a sunny February 2 is a better forecaster of early spring than a cloudy one? It seems, however, that part of the legend has its basis in European folklore. Candlemas, a Christian observance (mixed with Pagan practice) where people would have their candles blessed, marked forty days after Christmas and the midpoint of winter. Candlemas also falls on February 2, which is roughly half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Candlemas, like Groundhog Day, has its own weather-predicting traditions. There were rhymes, variously worded, but similar to this:

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas brings cloud and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Sound familiar, Phil? And in Germany, they believed that a badger (some sources say a hedgehog, and I suppose one must use whatever small animal is most readily available) seeing its shadow would bring more winter.


This brings us back to Punxsutawney. In the 1800s Germans immigrated to the United States and many settled in Pennsylvania (becoming known as Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German for the dialect they spoke), bringing their traditions with them. In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, however, people were more likely to eat Phil’s ancestors than seek weather advice from them—at least until a local newspaper editor got involved. Clymer Freas was the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit. He endowed Phil with weather wisdom, created Phil’s abode in Gobbler’s Knob, and promoted the first official ceremony, February 2, 1887, in the paper. Today, thousands (an estimated 30,000 on Saturday) descend on Punxsutawney for the festivities.


All those town visitors bring in tourism dollars. Other areas, not to be out done, decided their own groundhogs (also known as woodchucks or marmots) were equal to the task of weather prophecy. Chattanooga Chuck, Stormy Marmot, Balzac Billy, and General Beauregard Lee are among the soothsaying Sciuridae (yes, groundhogs are members of the squirrel family) that are looking to stage a coup and reign in Phil’s stead as king of Groundhog Day.


Still, Phil probably doesn’t have to worry about these pretenders to the throne. It’s more likely Phil will be put out of business by climate change. The winter of 2012 was the fourth warmest on record in the United States (2000, 1999, and 1992 were first, second, and third, respectively). 2012 was actually the 36th consecutive year where global temperatures were above average. If this trend continues, Phil can perpetually pick early spring and retire. Or, if we insist on having a weather rodent, we can choose a tropical replacement. May I suggest the Asylum (PA) Agouti*?

*Asylum, Pennsylvania, is a mere 200 miles from Punxsutawney. An agouti, besides being an excellent crossword puzzle word, is a rodent native to Central America, the West Indies, and northern South America.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow
Groundhog photo: © Matt MacGillivray (qmnonic)

Additional Reading:

Life Is a Highway


I took my kids on a college visit last week. As we drove down the highway, I began wondering about the interstate system. I knew that the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at a spike-driving ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah. (Although the railroad would not be a continuous line until 1870 because in 1869 passengers still had to complete one small portion of the journey by stage coach, but I digress!) Nevertheless, by the late 1800s, people could crisscross the country by train, but the train’s heyday was short-lived. The American love affair with the automobile also began around the turn of the century, and the people needed roads to drive on. So when was the first transcontinental interstate completed and where did the construction crews drive the proverbial golden spike for the interstate?

Get Your Kicks

Route 66 (The Mother Road) was one of the original US highways (work completed in 1926), but it only meandered from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. The Lincoln Highway actually was a transcontinental road, and it will celebrate its 100th birthday in October 2013. A motorist could leave New York City, drive over 3,000 miles along its route, and arrive in San Francisco. One traveler did make such a trip in 1919. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a lieutenant colonel in the army, joined the first Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy. It was supposed to be a reliability test of the road and the army’s vehicles. Eisenhower noted that “Delays sadly were to be the order of the day.” At times the convoy rolled along at less than six miles per hour, equipment broke down, road conditions were in turns dusty or muddy, and many of the bridges were in poor condition, collapsing under the weight of the convoy. The trip took sixty-two days. Eisenhower would later compare that trip to his experiences in World War II Germany, where he witnessed the Nazis (and later the Allies) easily moving troops along the more modern Autobahn.

King of the Road

Convinced that a modern highway system was need for national defense, postwar President Eisenhower championed the law that would create the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Of course other presidents, notably Franklin Roosevelt, had studied the idea as well, but Eisenhower helped figure out how to finance the project, by using Federal gas taxes and other similar sources of revenue to create the funds needed to actually pay for the US government’s share of the construction costs. The act also set national standards for the road construction, including width of lanes (12 feet) and shoulders (10 feet).

Hit the Road Jack   

So once there was funding, where was the first road built? There are actually three states that make a claim: Missouri was the first to sign contracts ordering work under the new act, and a section of what is now I-70 in St. Charles County was the first to receive the Federal funds.  Kansas, on the other hand, was the first to complete a road (also a section of I-70) with the Federal money (although construction had already started when they received the funding). Pennsylvania, however, claims that their turnpike was the first interstate because a large section of it opened in 1940, well before the 1956 act!

So, which state was first is a matter of interpretation. What about completion? Surprisingly, the first transcontinental east-west interstate was not completed until August 1986—thirty years after Eisenhower signed the act! This was Interstate 80, and fittingly, I-80 was also completed in Utah, but this time near Salt Lake City. Winding from New York City to San Francisco, the odometer of a car making this trek would clock just over 2,900 miles—making I-80, at the time of completion, the world’s longest completed freeway. The completion of I-10, I-90, and I-70 would follow, although critics argue I-70 is still not complete as it is missing exchanges.

The Long and Winding Road

You may have noticed that all of these even-numbered roads run east-west. What about the north-south interstates? These odd-numbered interstates include I-95, the major East Coast north-south route, which is the interstate that traverses the most states (sixteen). Despite that feat, I-95 isn’t scheduled to be complete until at least 2018, as there is a nine-mile gap between Pennsylvania and New Jersey! There is another interstate oddity to mention: Hawaii has three interstates (H-1, H-2, and H-3) all on the island of Oahu. If the roads aren’t even inter-island, how can they be interstates? They get the designation because they were completed with interstate funds.

In all, more than 47,000 miles of roadway make up the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highway today. I think Eisenhower would be pleased to note an east-west cross-country journey can now be completed in less than fifty hours. Road trip, anyone?

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Additional Reading:

Pencil Pushing


I spent some time over the last couple of weeks working on college-related things with the kids. We were looking at various schools and trying to sort out some application and scholarship choices. In discussing options, we began to wonder about ACT scores, specifically which university has the highest average composite ACT scores. Several schools have an average ACT of 34, including Yale (CT), Harvey Mudd (CA), and the California Institute of Technology (also CA, of course). Then we wondered which university has the lowest composite ACT scores on average. Shaw University (NC) had the lowest that we could find, with an average composite score of 14. Fourteen may be the true lowest average or perhaps schools with lower ones don’t bother to report these scores! The national college and university average for composite ACT scores is currently 22 (out of a possible 36).

Money, Money, Money

The ACT is just one of the dozens of standardized tests schools use to sort and rank students throughout their scholastic careers. A Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings report from November 2012 estimates states spend $1.7 billion per year on standardized testing. And let’s not forget that this sum does not include what parents spend! For although, Illinois, for example, has made it compulsory for all high school students to take the ACT and pays for them to do so, Illinois is no longer requiring the ACT with Writing. So if your student is applying to a school that demands the writing portion, you’ll be paying for that out of pocket (currently $50.50 per student) because your student will have to take the test a second time at a testing center. If you need to send your students’ scores to more than four schools, you’ll pay $11 for each additional report. And if your kid needs help studying for the ACT, you may decide to fork over money for books ($10 and up) or classes (which can run hundreds of dollars), all of which contributes to the very lucrative standardized testing industry (ACT, SAT, and half a dozen other major players—along with several smaller companies).

Testing Dynasties

But high schools students didn’t wake up one day and collectively demand a standardized test or a standardized testing industry, so where did all this testing start? A University of Iowa professor introduced a version of the ACT in 1959. The SAT is even older; it was first administered to high school students in 1926. Both of these tests, however, are Johnny-come-latelies to the world of standardized testing. To find the beginnings, you have to go back—way back—to China in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). That’s right. Standardized testing is more than 2,000 years old. The Chinese wanted a way to test men hoping to train for civil servant positions. Subsequent dynasties tweaked the original test, and like today, over the centuries there were arguments against this sort of testing (as some scholars disliked the rote memorization of Confucian texts for the test), but the system was used in one form or another until 1905!

Just as the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was abolishing the Chinese scheme, the United States was adopting its own testing system. The College Board (maker of the SAT) was founded in 1900 to create a standardized admission test for colleges. The first essay-style exam was offered in 1901 and taken by almost a thousand students in 69 locations.

The modern standardized intelligence (IQ) test was also developed in the early 1900s. Alfred Binet (1857–1911), a French psychologist, and Theodore Simon (1872–1961), a medical student of Binet’s, created the Binet-Simon Scale in 1905—the precursor to the Stanford-Binet test still used today. This sort of IQ testing was adapted for U.S. army assignments in World War I, where tests were administered to recruits to select officer candidates. Army testing, in turn, was applied to education by Carl Brigham (1890–1943), who had worked on the officer recruitment project. Brigham was hired by the College Board to create a standardized test for college entrance, which resulted in the aforementioned 1926 SAT.

Tiny Bubbles

In the late 1930s, IBM made their contribution to the standardized testing world, patenting the IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine, which read marks made by a graphite lead pencil using wire brushes to scan the page for electrical conductivity. The technology allowed automatic scoring of answer sheets for the multiple choice test sections. By the early 1960s, the electrical method gave way to optical test scanning machines, which caused generations of students—from elementary school to high school and beyond—to learn how to completely fill in their answer bubbles.

In 2012 more than 3.2 million students took either the SAT or the ACT. That number is only likely to go up as more states make taking one of the tests mandatory for graduation. All of which means that test anxiety, the debate over the use and abuse of testing, and No. 2 pencils are likely to be around for a long time.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Additional Reading:

Murder Most Fowl


My cousin sent me this Internet meme. He and I share a penchant for a good pun, and he knew I’d appreciate this play on words. He was right, but after I laughed, I also wondered why we call a group of crows a “murder of crows.” I knew that animals often have collective names beyond the prosaic “herd of cows” or “flock of seagulls” (even though the latter also got a band out of the deal). You probably know the more well-known “pride of lions,” “pod of dolphins,” and “school of fish”; you may also have heard of the officious sounding “parliament of owls,” the showy “ostentation of peacocks,” and the aptly named “chattering of starlings.” It even turns out the group term “barrel of monkeys” long predates the 1965 children’s game (now produced by Milton Bradley) with the same moniker.

But who makes up these names, and what exactly is the origin of a “murder of crows”? Unfortunately, the historical record is elusive, and even a crowbar couldn’t help dislodge the truth. We do know The Boke of Saint Albans (1486)—attributed to Juliana Berners (sometimes given as Barnes), who was purported to be a prioress of an abbey near St. Albans, England—contained a three-page list of these collective terms. Historians, however, believe that the terms were most likely simply collected by Berners (not created by her). The book was published in the transition period between Middle and Early Modern English, but you can attempt to read a copy of a 1905 reprint here.

The meaning behind murder of crows is even more slippery. There is much speculation, but little verified truth. Some suggest that crows occasionally hold a crow tribunal where an offending member of the crow society is tried and sometimes sentenced to death by the other crows. This, however, seems to be more folklore than fact. Others note that crows and other black birds are considered omens (usually bad ones), and the negative connotations of a murder of crows may derive from that. Still others believe the term evolved from crow behavior during war. Because the crow is a carrion bird, they were often seen picking over the dead and wounded after a battle, which certainly did not help their reputation as harbingers of ill fortune. None of these three theories has been conclusively proven, however; so although black birds of a feather may flock together, I’m destined to eat crow and admit that I still don’t know exactly why these particular avian creatures are collectively a murder. But it is killing me.

Additional Reading:

The PBS series Nature had an episode on crows. See their fact sheet.

Want more collective animal terms? The San Diego Zoo has a whole page.

Text: ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Unknown Internet Meme