The mystery of the artist in the lab

The penicillin in the grooves would act as a barrier to prevent bacteria from traveling across—repel it.

The mysteries of the scientific laboratory are mind boggling and some of our best advances in medicine have even been started quite by accident. Who discovered the health-preserving and often lifesaving anti-bacterial properties of the mold, penicillin?

Can you remember that from your high school science? If you need a refresher, it was Scotsman Alexander Fleming and the year was 1928.

What is seldom discussed is what Fleming sometimes did to pass the time in his laboratory—with the penicillin. It was a favorite method of relaxation. He would draw small pictures on blotting paper. Some were beautiful, some were humorous.

Fleming would take his small drawings, cut them to fit into the bottom of Petri dishes and covered them with a layer of the lab medium, agar. He had a sharp stylus that he used to retrace the outlines, and as he did so he transferred penicillin into the grooves of the drawings. The penicillin in the grooves would act as a barrier to prevent bacteria from traveling across—repel it.

He then filled in the areas between the penicillin-outlines with different strains of bacteria. He knew that Bacillus Prodigiosus produced a red color, Bacillus Violaceus produced a blue color and regular old Staphylococcus produced bright yellow. He could sometimes get additional colors by combining. He let his Petri-dish artwork cure in the lab there at London’s St. Mary’s Hospital, until he was satisfied with the colors of his living paints.

I have photos before me that include a cottage in a landscape setting, a woman feeding a baby with a bottle, while the baby helps with his own little hands, and the clever image of a ballerina in a dark red tutu. All are quite lovely. The man could draw.

It would be a wonder to see the expression on Queen Mary’s face when she came to visit. Fleming had made a special creation for the occasion. He had created the Union Jack as one of his mini artworks. We are fortunate, indeed, to have photographs of some of his creations.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of true stories about the bizarre and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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