Published as: Penicillin reborn - review of Alexander Fleming exhibition,
British Medical Journal, 307: 875-876, 2 October 1993.

Penicillin Reborn

Review of the newly-opened Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum

In the 1940s Alexander Fleming discovered one of the strongest forces known to science - the power of the press. His little laboratory, perched over the bustle of Praed Street, Paddington, became a place of pilgrimage. Visitors found it steeped in cigarette smoke and reeking of lysol, cluttered with papers and petri dishes. Now the look of the laboratory has been lovingly recreated, and in September it was opened to the public as a medical museum.

The exhibits are on several levels. There is a shop dispensing memorabilia (a guide to the displays in a range of languages, picture postcards, trinkets) - and a tiny video room where a ten-minute tape gives excerpts of the flickering films which charted Fleming’s life, and recreates Fleming himself as a miracle among men. There is the original laboratory, wonderfully crowded with memorabilia. Almroth Wright’s slide cabinet stands near a window, there is a copper water-bath, hand-drawn pipettes, a contemporaneous copy of The Times and a scattering of text-books. The mycology laboratory at St Mary’s have even produced authentic agar cultures in which staphylococci and a colony of Penicillium vie with each other, just as they did in 1928. The intention is to show the room as a working laboratory, though it is sanitised without the aroma of the autoclave and the scent of smoke and disinfectant.

But not everything can be original. Fleming's bench had gone, so the curator, Kevin Brown, salvaged one from the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital. The old rectangular tiles had long since been stripped from the laboratory walls, so the surfaces have been carefully painted and fitted with a dado to mimic the appearance of the 1930s. Although Fleming smoked incessantly, there is no sign of an over-filled ashtray, nor of an old packet of a favourite brand of cigarettes. Modern views on health have over-ruled any desire to include those personal details.

And then there is the museum room itself. Wall charts, newspaper cuttings, photographs and instrumentation are carefully lit to reveal their secrets to the casual visitor.

Until, suddenly, there is a jarring of the memory. Semi-synthetic penicillins were developed by the Beecham Group under the guidance of E. B. Chain, and there is the original institute in the video, clustered with ivy and as evocative as the house Anthony Perkins occupied in Psycho. But the famous Beecham research institute is identified by the narrator as the SmithKline Beecham Laboratories, and the research is suddenly transmogrified into work by SmithKline Beecham instead. Hold hard there! This modern Company was not even a twinkle in the accountants’ eyes at the time.

The sponsoring of historical presentations like this is so timely, and the results are so evocative, that one is willing to look kindly at the sponsoring company’s desire for its own piece of the action. But re-writing the record is no way to preserve the past. It is time that Company management recognised that massaging the truth - even slightly - can only detract from the end result.

The Fleming Laboratory Museum at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, offers guided tours every hour from 1000h - 1200h, Monday to Thursday. For appointments at other times ring 071-725 6528. Adult admission 2.

The author is Chairman of the History Committee of the Institute of Biology. His latest book is 'Images of Science'.