Today, a parable about awards. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Biochemist Mary Krinsky
writes to tell me a story about penicillin. She
raises a favorite theme of mine: scientific
priority is a bankrupt notion, since science deals
with a universe that was there long before we came
out the cave. And so, of course, was penicillin.
After all, it does exist in nature.
So to make a case for priority we run a gamut of
questions. Who was first aware of its existence?
Who first saw its healing powers? Who first
isolated it? Who first produced it? Who first
synthesized it? You extend the list. I grow tired.
Pasteur recognized that antibacterial agents might
exist. An American named Porter saw penicillin
acting against microorganisms in 1924. In 1929,
Alexander Fleming looked at penicillin as a
possible antiseptic. But he couldn't purify it
without destroying its potency. And there the
matter lay until the 1930s.
Then the young pathologist Howard Florey took an
interest in Fleming's work and began studying
antibacterial agents. Antiseptics simply attack all
the germs in an area. Florey realized we might
create substances that could enter our system and
wipe out a single strain of bacteria.
In 1935, Oxford University gave Florey the job of
revitalizing its pathology department. Florey
formed a remarkable group of young men and women.
By 1940 they'd figured out how to isolate stable
penicillin from mold. WW-II was now in full swing,
and Florey tried to interest the English and
American War Departments in producing the drug. He
had no luck. But then, a key event:
A friend of Fleming's fell ill. He went to Florey
for penicillin. Florey generously handed him the
world's entire supply of the stuff. It saved
Fleming's friend. Then Fleming called in reporters,
and the cameras all turned on him, not on Florey.
After that, Florey's group got just enough funding
to go ahead. A single dose of penicillin came from
thousands of liters of solution. How the group
designed that production is a great bootstrap,
make-do, story of the War. In 1944, Allied troops
carried penicillin with them onto the beaches of
A year later, Florey, Fleming, and E.B. Chain from
Florey's group won the Nobel Prize. And we're left
wondering: if a perfect prize were to be given, who
would it honor? Would it go to one exemplar of this
great train of creativity? Would it go to a line of
people all the way back to Pasteur or even
Honors do help us to focus on virtue and
excellence. But not as well as history does. And
history shows, over and over, that creativity is a
communal act, not an individual one. It is a sad
thing to see this grand tapestry of human invention
reduced to just a few names -- on a Nobel Prize.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds