On a recent anniversary of Scottish bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, I got curious about the strange blue-green mold that he first noticed killing staph bacteria growing in a Petri dish in his London lab. What did penicillin mold actually look like? Mold, to me, was that fuzzy green gunk that sometimes appears on a cantaloupe slice that has been left too long in the back of your refrigerator. The pictures of penicillin mold I found online were a revelation. Here was this deeply furrowed blue-green mandala flecked with gold and fringed with white, the furrows radiating from its center. The photograph identified the mold by its scientific name: a Penicillium chrysogenum fungus culture. It was undeniably beautiful.
The story of Fleming’s discovery began when he returned from a two-week summer vacation back home in Scotland and found that the Petri dish in which he had been cultivating staph bacteria had become contaminated by mold. Rather than simply sterilizing the Petri dish for reuse, he decided to investigate why the mold appeared to have killed the bacteria. Fleming, as it happens, had been looking for an antibiotic agent that was not also harmful to the human body. He found it in the substance he initially called “mold juice,” then "penicillin" after the name of the mold itself.
The 19th-century biologist Louis Pasteur, who himself did pioneering work on the link between bacteria and disease, famously said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Fleming was modest about his contribution to what became the most consequential medical breakthrough in the 20th century. “Nature makes penicillin,” he said, “I just found it.” Not being a trained chemist, Fleming did not succeed in isolating and purifying the antibiotic agent in penicillin mold. He turned that task over to researchers at Oxford, who shared with him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945. Still others figured out how to mass-produce the antibiotic using mold that was found growing on cantaloupe, as it turns out.
Reflecting on his achievement, Fleming said, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” The key, of course, is to have the presence of mind to recognize what one has found, which means one has to be paying close attention. In Fleming’s case, it meant rescuing a “contaminated” Petri dish from a pile of dirty Petri dishes that were set to be washed out with Lysol. What exactly did Fleming do to earn his Nobel Prize? Nothing much, by his own estimation. And yet his simple act of observation, which he called wider attention to in a scientific paper, has saved millions of lives in the decades since.
As a landscape photographer, I realize much of what I do is finding what I am not looking for. When I set out with my camera and tripod, I am rarely headed for some scenic overlook. My hunting ground is often within walking distance of my house, some nook or cranny I may have passed a thousand times without giving it a thought. And yet, when seen from a certain angle or in a certain light, mere backdrop becomes dramatic foreground. “Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping if it were not,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “Experience.” The trick is to keep your eyes peeled, not just for what you have in your sights at the outset but for what you might discover along the way. To focus so exclusively on your intended subject that you see nothing else is actually a form of visual impairment. You need to take a wide-angle view. At the same time you cannot ignore what lies closest at hand, indoors as well as out: the junk in your garage and basement, your bathroom, your kitchen, the contents of your refrigerator. I would like to think, if I ever found a beautiful moldy cantaloupe in the back of my refrigerator, that I would have the presence of mind to photograph it before it got thrown out.