In 1928, Alexander Fleming arrived at his lab to find that a mysterious mold had contaminated his Petri dishes and was eradicating the bacteria colonies he was trying to grow. Intrigued, he decided to study the mold. That’s how Fleming came to be known as the discoverer of penicillin.
Fleming’s story is one that is told and retold because it reinforces so much about what we love about innovation. A brilliant mind meets a pivotal moment of epiphany and — Eureka! — the world is forever changed. Unfortunately, that’s not really how things work. It wasn’t true in Fleming’s case and it won’t work for you.
The truth is that innovation is never a single event, but a process of discovery, engineering and transformation, which is why penicillin didn’t become commercially available until 1945 (and the drug was actually a different strain of the mold than Fleming had discovered). We need to stop searching for Eureka moments and get busy with the real work of innovating.
Learning To Recognize And Define Problems
Before Fleming, there was Ignaz Semmelweis and to understand Fleming’s story it helps to understand that of his predecessor. Much like Fleming, Semmelweis was a bright young man of science who had a moment of epiphany. In Semmelweis’s case, he was one of the first to realize that infections could spread from doctor to patient.
That simple insight led him to institute a strict regime of hand washing at Vienna General Hospital. Almost immediately, the incidence of deadly childbed fever dropped precipitously. Yet his ideas were not accepted at the time and Semmelweis didn’t do himself any favors by refusing to format his data properly or to work collaboratively to build support for his ideas. Instead, he angrily railed against the medical establishment he saw as undermining his work.
Semmelweis would die in an insane asylum, ironically from an infection he contracted under care, and never got to see the germ theory of disease emerge from the work of people like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. That’s what led to the study of bacteriology, sepsis and Alexander Fleming growing those cultures that were contaminated by the mysterious mold.
When Fleming walked into his lab on that morning in 1928, he was bringing a wealth of experiences to the problem. During World War I, he had witnessed many soldiers die from sepsis and how applying antiseptic agents to the wound often made the problem worse. Later, he found that nasal secretions inhibited bacterial growth.
So when the chance discovery of penicillin happened, it was far from a single moment, but rather a “happy accident” that he had spent years preparing for.
Today, we remember Fleming’s discovery of penicillin as a historic breakthrough, but it wasn’t considered to be so at the time. In fact, when it was first published in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, nobody really noticed. The truth is that what Fleming discovered couldn’t have cured anybody. It was just a mold secretion that killed bacteria in a Petri dish.
Perhaps even more importantly, Fleming was ill-equipped to transform penicillin into something useful. He was a pathologist that largely worked alone. To transform his discovery into an actual cure, he would need chemists and other scientists, as well as experts in fermentation, manufacturing, logistics and many other things. To go from milliliters in the lab to metric tons in the real world is no trivial thing.
So Fleming’s paper lay buried in a scientific journal for ten years before it was rediscovered by a team led by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at the University of Oxford. Chain, a world-class biochemist, was able to stabilize the penicillin compound and another member of the team, Norman Heatley, developed a fermentation process to produce it in greater quantities.
Because Florey and Chain led a larger team in a bigger lab they were also had the staff and equipment to perform experiments on mice, which showed that penicillin was effective in treating infections. However, when they tried to cure a human, they found that they were not able to produce enough of the drug. They simply didn’t have the capacity.
Driving A Transformation
By the time Florey and Chain had established the potential of penicillin it was already 1941 and England was at war, which made it difficult to find funding to scale up their work. Luckily, Florey had done a Rhodes Scholarship in the United States and was able to secure a grant to travel to America and continue the development of penicillin with US-based labs.
That collaboration produced two more important breakthroughs. First, they were able to identify a more powerful strain of the penicillin mold. Second, they developed a fermentation process utilizing corn steep liquor as a medium. Corn steep liquor was common in the American Midwest, but virtually unheard of back in England.
Still, they needed to figure out a way to scale up production and that was far beyond the abilities of research scientists. However, the OSRD, a government agency in charge of wartime research, understood the potential of penicillin for the war effort and initiated an aggressive program, involving two dozen pharmaceutical companies, to overcome the challenges.
Working feverishly, they were able to produce enough penicillin to deploy the drug for D-Day in 1944 and saved untold thousands of lives. After the war was over, in 1945, penicillin was made commercially available, which touched off a “golden age” of antibiotic research and new drugs were discovered almost every year between 1950 and 1970.
Innovation Is Never A Single Event
The story of Fleming’s Eureka! moment is romantic and inspiring, but also incredibly misleading. It wasn’t one person and one moment that changed the world, but the work of many over decades that made an impact. As I explain in my book, Cascades, it is small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose that drive transformational change.
In fact, the development of penicillin involved not one, but a series of epiphanies. First, Fleming discovered penicillin. Then, Florey and Chain rediscovered Fleming’s work. Chain stabilized the compound, Heatley developed the fermentation process, other scientists identified the more powerful strain and corn steep liquor as a fermentation medium. Surely, there were many other breakthroughs involving production, logistics and treatment that are lost to history.
This is not the exception, but the rule. The truth is that the next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all. For example, Jim Allison, who recently won the Nobel Prize for his development of cancer immunotherapy, had his idea rejected by pharmaceutical companies, much like the medical establishment dismissed Semmelweis back in the 1850s.
Yet Allison kept at it. He continued to pound the pavement, connect and collaborate with others and that’s why today he his hailed as a pioneer and a hero. That’s why we need to focus less on inventions and more on ecosystems. It’s never a single moment of Eureka! that truly changes the world, but many of them.