London: The Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum

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For once, I’m writing about somewhere right after I got home from visiting it, so hopefully it will remain fresh in my mind even without the aid of pictures.  Today’s post is centred around Alexander Fleming’s laboratory, which is based inside St. Mary’s Hospital near Paddington.  I got a bit lost trying to find it, which is not really surprising since I have no sense of direction and hospitals are kind of confusing, but once I was inside the hospital complex, there were signs to follow, so I managed.  It’s only open Monday-Thursday from 10-1, so if you have a job with normal hours, you might be out of luck, but fortunately (or unfortunately, from a monetary perspective), I’ve had no such constraints for some time now.

They charge £4 for admission, but if you arrive alone, as I did, you get your very own volunteer guide to show you around the laboratory.  The museum is kind of spread out over four different floors in the very corner of the hospital, with many steps and no lift access, so if you have mobility issues, bear this in mind.  The museum shop is on the first floor, which is where you have to go to pay admission, and then the guide takes you up to the next floor to see the laboratory.

I always feel kind of awkward going on a tour by myself, since I never have any questions, and I feel awkward just standing there and nodding like an idiot the whole time, but this wasn’t so bad.  The guide put me at ease, and he didn’t really seem to expect much of a response from me (I hate when tours encourage audience participation), so it worked out fine.  In case you’re not aware of the work of Sir Alexander Fleming, he was the one who discovered penicillin (I used to work in the events department at Imperial College, and I spent an inordinate amount of time in the freezing foyer of the Sir Alexander Fleming building, acting as a glorified doorman and staring at the huge bust of him that is mounted next to the stairwell, so I feel like I know him on a weirdly intimate level), and the guide went over that story, from how the mould had a chance to grow (Fleming was messy, and left a lot of petri dishes lying around when he went on holiday back in 1928), how its antiseptic properties were discovered (there was bacteria in the dish, but none in the area around the mould), the subsequent medical trials (the first couple were a bit of a disaster, first when they ran out of penicillin, since they hadn’t discovered an efficient way of culturing it yet, and then it did clear up a boy’s eye infection, but unfortunately the infection had already weakened his carotid artery, which burst, but they obviously got the hang of it eventually), to how the mould got into the room in the first place. This latter story was particularly interesting, since no one knows exactly how the spores showed up; either something drifted in from the pub across the street (which remains there to this day, and lays claim to that story with a commemorative plaque, seen below), which seems unlikely since it would have had to cross a busy street, and gotten through sealed windows (since like me, Fleming hated fresh air), or more probably, someone tracked something in from the allergies lab a couple of floors below.  It is said that if Fleming wasn’t so untidy, penicillin might have never been discovered, so there are some perks to messiness!

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This wasn’t the only time he was untidy; he also discovered something he called lysozyme when some snot from his nose dripped onto another slide – this too had antibacterial properties, but just wasn’t as effective as penicillin promised to be.  Anyway, after hearing about all this, and examining a small case containing some of his writing and a microscope he used as a student, I was taken upstairs to watch a short video (judging from the graphics, made in the ’80s or early ’90s, but interesting nonetheless), and given free rein to explore the small museum, which consisted of a series of informative posters.  They fleshed out the story of Fleming’s life a bit more, and gave credit to all the other people who worked alongside and after Fleming to develop penicillin’s potential (Fleming got all the credit initially because he was the only scientist granting interviews, according to one of the articles in the museum).  Apparently, Fleming was just referring to his substance by the attractive name of “mould juice” until he came up with the catchier penicillin (also, it tastes like Stilton if you eat it straight apparently, which is kind of disgusting if you hate blue cheese as much as I do). There was even some neat comic strips of Fleming back when he was made out to be some sort of super-hero.  My only complaint with this section was that some of the text was written over a background picture, which made it a little tricky to read.

The whole complex wasn’t huge, and only took me about half an hour to see, including the tour and the ten minute video, but it was cool to learn some stuff I didn’t know about Fleming (I was already familiar with the history of antiseptics, and early attempts at antibiotics, like the horrible sounding salvarsan, used to treat syphilis, which was basically a form of chemotherapy (sort of an unnecessarily grueling procedure for something that’s easily cured with penicillin, see, there’s something to thank Fleming for right there!)).  The gift shop sold some postcards, though disappointingly, since no photography is allowed, none were of the laboratory itself.  However, all was not lost, as I was able to get a mouldy old postcard (literally.  It has a picture of the penicillin spores on it).

I can’t begrudge them the entrance fee, because it is all volunteer run and it seems very much a labour of love, with a rather homey atmosphere inside the slightly mouldering old building (a couple different people offered to take my coat.  I hung on to it, because it was cold in there, but it was nice of them to offer), and it’s clear they need all the money they can get.  Other than some of the hard to read signage, I think things were nicely set up, but it would be great if they could get more artefacts in there (apparently one of his microscopes is floating around Greece, and the original penicillin petri dish is kept behind lock and key in the British Library) to give visitors something more to look at (this definitely isn’t a child friendly place, since you can’t touch anything and it’s all just text).  But I learned a lot, and I think it’s amazing to have the chance to see the place where such a momentous discovery took place (even if the stuff in the room is a reconstruction).  In this age of scary superbugs, it can be easy to lose sight of how world-changing the discovery of penicillin was, and this museum definitely makes you reflect on that.  3/5.

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