I can’t remember how we got onto the conversation. I was sitting in a pub in Brighton with my old Cambridge friends playing Scrabble and drinking Diet Coke because I was hungover AF. I was also moody because I had an extremely itchy butt – you know that weird insane itchy butt thing you get after you’ve been in the sea and sat on a hard chair? Drives me bananas. Anyway, Alexander Fleming came up in conversation, and I absolutely flew off the handle. My friends suggest I write a blog about it to get all this rage off my chest, so here it is.
Alexander Fleming. Alexander. Fleming. Heard of him? Heard of him yeh? WE’VE ALL HEARD OF HIM. I’m so sick of hearing the story of the discovery of penicillin, or the invention of pencillin as some so aptly like to put it. Of course, it was not invented, it evolved via natural selection in the fungus penicillium – cheers little fungus! We should really thank fungi more in life, and thank Fleming less. If I hear the story of how this human accidentally left his plates whilst he went on holiday and came back and OH LOOK penicillium had killed off some bacteria (I hate myself for telling it now) I’m actually going to projectile vomit into my own handbag.
Learned it at school, learned it at college, learned it at every single event ever, hear it on the radio, learnt it at uni, now even at medical school Alexander Fleming and his dastardly discovery haunts me in every corner. Can everyone just please stop talking about it?
Okay so that’s item 1 of my hatred out of the way (stop talking about it), now on to item 2: glorifying people (usually men) unnecessarily when no praise is due. All Fleming did was go on holiday. Did he culture the fungi so we could extract the antibiotic? No. Did he engineer its mass production to save lives? No. Is he really annoying? Yes. It was Florey and Chain, the champions of mass producing this fantastic antibiotic who we should really be thanking*. And also the hundreds of test subjects, many of whom had to drink their own wee to re-extract the precious penicillin, since it is excreted mainly unchanged in urine.
*If you’d like to learn more about Fleming’s undue credit, I’d like to direct you to The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine by James Le Fanu.
More generally, I’m so sick of everything in biology being smothered in male praise. Smothered in Nobel prizes for these unbelievably advantaged humans, humans who without the money being thrown at them, without the systematic privilege they were granted, would never have achieved in such revolting abundance. It makes me desperately sad to think of all the nameless faceless people who will never be spared a thought for their role in the story of scientific discovery, just people they weren’t a big fat shiny rich bearded white man.
I’m exhausted from everything in biology being named after men. The pouch of ‘Douglas’, a sack in between the guts and the uteruses of most women, named after DOUGLAS. Oh, by the way, he’s a man. Cooper’s ligaments, the things that hold up my tits, named after COOPER. Bartholin’s glands, these are glands either side of your vagina that frequently become inflamed (of which one of mine currently is). MAN. TOO MANY MAN.* Every single little festering part of my female anatomy seems to have had a man’s name firmly adhered to it. I just want to wield an umbrella and swat away all these unwelcome names from my innards.
*Sorry men, most of you are great
And just to add insult to injury, did you know that the clitoris, in all its glory, was not discovered until 2005? In our anatomy class, whilst we have lovely detailed model penis’s from 20 years ago to learn from, we had to use an improvised plasticine model made by our lecturer for the clit. In reality, our clitorises are kind of like a giant four-pronged claw.
Okay so item 2 done, one more item of hatred left. Item 3. I used to be scientist, I spent nearly 5 years in the lab slogging away for a PhD in genetics. And I am so sick with rage about these ‘accidental discovery’ stories. Oooo isn’t science a happy accident! NO IT’S NOT. It’s carefully planned and plotted, meticulously followed through and painstakingly recorded. These accidents are far too celebrated. We should, I believe, direct our rage at them instead. Even if these happy little accidents of discovery do happen, they shouldn’t, because it annoys people. Like me.
So I hope I’ve convinced you to also hate Fleming. Penicillin is quite good though, I suppose.
I’m back to medical school this January, and instead of learning about pregnancy and childbirth I wrote this highly questionable blog post. Please do feel free to challenge my ideas.
Also a note – instead of moaning about men, we should move forwards in society by sharing both the success stories and oppression stories of all humans. I’m a bad example and I’m sorry. More morally palatable posts will follow.
Happy New Year!