Penicillin… A Star Is Born (This Day In History – May 25, 1940)

On this date in 1940, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain of the University of Oxford injected eight lab mice with lethal doses of streptococci bacteria. They then administered penicillin to four of those mice. The next day, the four mice that received penicillin were healthy. The other four were dead.

The effect of mold in fighting bacteria was first discovered (by accident) by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Fleming had just returned to his laboratory after a month-long vacation with his family. Before he left, he was working with cultures of staphylococci bacteria, which he stacked and stored before leaving for vacation. When he returned, he found that one of his cultures contained a moldy substance, around which the staphylococci colonies had been destroyed. He wrote up his observations, but little attention was given to his paper until Florey and Chain began their work.

The first human trial took place the year after Florey and Chain’s experiment. In its sole subject, penicillin had immediate effect. The only problem was limited supply.

During World War II, Florey managed to convince some chemical companies in the United States to start mass-producing penicillin, in time to treat Allied troops invading Europe. Production soon increased, and production costs plummeted.

Fleming, Florey, and Chain were recognized for their achievement with the Nobel Prize in 1945.

Today, penicillin and other antibiotics are considered miracle drugs that save countless lives. In 2010 alone, more than 7.3 billion standard units of penicillin were consumed worldwide.

The Dancing Bees of Karl von Frisch

Born this day in 1886 was Karl von Frisch, an ethologist (scientist specializing in animal behavior) best known for his pioneering work with bees. Frisch studied the sensory perception of bees and famously discovered the fascinating language of the honey bee.

Although many animals are known to communicate with one another, bees have developed a sophisticated language expressed through movement, described as a dance.

Honey bees live in colonies of thousands of bees, each serving an important role for the benefit of the colony. There is a queen and about a hundred drones to mate with her. And then there are the worker bees, who travel away from the hive to search for food, in the form of pollen and nectar, sometimes over a mile away.

This is hard work for bees, so they figured out how to make it more efficient through communication. When a worker bee finds food, it recruits other bees through a sequence of movements. A round dance tells bees that food is nearby. For greater distances, it uses a “waggle” dance that communicates the direction and distance of the food.

Honey bees also dance to communicate acceptance of new home sites when swarming.

Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 and died in 1982.