Sir Alexander Fleming inspects a petri dish full of bacteria. Fame Images
The world is facing a potentially disastrous future: The antibiotics we use to cure everyday infections are becoming useless against certain bacteria.
If this post-antibiotic era comes to pass, by 2050 it could kill more people every year than cancer.
Sadly, Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming predicted this fate more than 70 years ago, soon after he made an accidental discovery in 1928 while experimenting with the influenza virus.
While sifting through a pile of old, discarded dishes smeared with bacteria, he noticed something odd.
Mold that had contaminated one of Fleming’s plates appeared to be killing the bacteria it was touching. In other words, the mold seemed to contain an antibacterial compound.
After working for years to find a “wonder drug” that would wipe out bacteria, Fleming had inadvertently stumbled upon it.
Several weeks later, Fleming figured out that the mold belonged to the genus Penicillium. He decided to call the mold’s active ingredient that was killing the bacteria “penicillin,” one of the world’s first antibiotics.
And it turns out that Fleming himself predicted not only how useful antibacterial drugs would be, but how dangerous a world without them could be. In an interview shortly after winning the Nobel Prize in 1945 for discovering penicillin, Fleming said:
“The thoughtless person playing with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of the man who succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism.”