Divine Serendipity


Of all the quotations about learning from one’s experience, none is more tangibly perspicacious than one from the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821), who sagaciously said, “Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.” How rightly so when it reflects a posteriori empirical truth. In fact, nowhere is this more evident than in the case of our health, which is subject to illness due to causes preternatural however trivial or diminutive they may be. For being the experience of a painful ordeal, I say that illness has inculcated in me a profound reverence to the disciples of Hippocrates and medical efficaciousness. I could not have been more appreciative of the remarkable medical progresses we often take for granted, one of which is the benevolent agency of antibiotic that has been saving lives of people from infections since its discovery by Dr. Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) in September 1928.

fleming-rm-af-swDr. Fleming’s finding of Penicillin was something of serendipity or more likely divine providence. Dr. Fleming, an erstwhile captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I, began researching antibacterial substances at St. Mary’s Hospital in London after witnessing so many deaths of soldiers due to rampant pervasiveness of infections even though the wounds were not seriously intractable. Then one day in August 1928, Dr. Fleming left his bacteria cultures stacked up on a bench before embarking on his family holiday. On his return in September, he found a mould growing in one of his sample cultures, destroying the bacteria. What’s more, the mould produced a substance that destroyed the bacteria responsible for scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, and meningitis. Dr. Fleming first named it “mould juices” in 1940. Then in 1940, two medical researchers from University of Oxford named Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Florey succeeded in mass-producing penicillin. The concerted collaboration of the three trailblazers of the first modern antibiotic awarded them with the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1945. Indeed, the laborers were worthy of the rewards.


The discovery and development of Penicillin is akin to Prometheus’s stealing of divine fire to mankind.  By the end of 1940, more than 250,000 patients a month were treated with the antibiotic for a variety of infections that had meant a death sentence for thousand years, ranging from the time immemorial to the medieval when a scourge of the Black Death swept away thousands of lives to even the simple cases of abscess, especially prevalent in the 17th century London where more than 200 people died therefrom, and to the early 20th century case of Alexander of Greece who contracted sepsis from the bite wound by his pet monkey while trying to pacify a fight between his dog and the monkey and died shortly after from the infection. Furthermore, the use of  antibiotic enabled doctors to perform more invasive –i.e., opening a surface of skin and infiltrating into the inner layer of skin with surgical tools – without having to worry about the high risk of infection.

To think that I could have been in the canon of the dead! Dr. Fleming’s breakthrough discovery of penicillin that has heralded all other subsequent medical and medicinal munificent largesses contributing to the human race imbues me with exultation at the blessing of having born in this post-penicillin era when I don’t have to have occasional bloodletting for frequent dizzy spells, to have my tooth crudely pulled out without Novocain by a barber, or to endure the gruesome pain of going through a surgery without anesthesia. On a very rare moment of personal note, I wonder if my existence in this era I am living is whether or not truly divine providence. If so, then let it be, and I am all the more certainly happy that I began to live once again in this post-antibiotic era.


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Stephanie Suh

I write stuff of my interest that does not interest anyone in my blog. No grammarians, no copy editors, no marketers, no cynics are welcome.

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