The story of a mould, a melon and a war

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What penicillin teaches us about getting ideas to happen.

Bear with me. I’m just emerging from 5 days of tonsillitis where I consumed a diet of mainly codeine, penicillin and Grey’s Anatomy, so my brain might not be working at 100%.

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In the middle of one sleep-deprived night, I got into an internet wormhole about the wonder drug that is penicillin. Now we all know the fable of Flemming and the forgotten putrid petri-dish of 1928, but the much more interesting story is what happened next. 

15 years of not much. And then a war, and a melon that saved a lot of humans. 

Fleming had indeed discovered the magnificent mould that killed the streptococcus bacteria which was one of the biggest causes of death in humans. And that’s great. But the discovery couldn’t actually help humanity because it couldn’t be replicated for manufacture. Scientists couldn’t reliably produce enough of it in a way that could be used as a treatment. 

They had to solve how to do it at scale. And there were two underlying problems hindering progress. 

  1. The mould they had just wouldn’t play ball. 

It stubbornly refused to be replicated for mass production. Perhaps there were other moulds that could do the same. But it’s 1928, there’s no internet, no computers, no global databases to scour. The search for other viable moulds could take a century of trial and error. So how would they find them?

  1. There wasn’t enough momentum or incentive for people to engage with the idea and challenge.

In fact, even then, progress was killed by endless fierce debates about methodology and process.
The culture (no pun intended, science geeks) of the scientific community was being precious about ideas. Fame and fortune come from jealously guarded secrets, and the system is rigged to make sure people who own the idea profit. And this meant there was no culture of collaboration, no vested interest in a shared endeavour (beyond the fact it could save a LOT of humans). 

A century later, I see similar situations with our clients all the time. The ideas are there, but the system isn’t set up for people to swarm around them and take them to the next level. So ideas die on the vine, potential withering as they get forgotten in the pursuit of the next shiny thing. I think is the real question facing many people when innovating: 

How do you mobilise people who have no real incentive to work together to get an idea to actually happen?

So let’s see what lessons we can learn from what happened next with Penicillin. 

In 1939, the second world war kicked off. Many, many people died – not of their immediate injuries, but of secondary infections. We were looking at the loss of millions of soldiers and civilians in the Allied forces, and politicians were desperate to find anything that could help. 

Could penicillin win the war? If it could, there were millions of dollars available for investment.

So the UK swiftly partnered with the US who at the time were turning into a manufacturing powerhouse, had a ready-made network of distilleries and mushroom factories who were already experts in handling moulds (yeast, and er, mushrooms), and whose cities weren’t under threat of nightly bombings. Scale, ready to rock. 

Lesson 1)  When you have an idea, attach it to a mobilising cause that unites the people you need to get things moving. 

People are motivated by a big shared endeavour that will also benefit them personally. Figure that out, and you’ll have something that will get balls rolling. The US had the capacity and environment to manufacture something quickly, but they still didn’t have the right mould that could be grown quickly, easily and at scale. 

So they activated the Allied forces to help. Conveniently, because of the war, there was access to soil from every corner of the earth. A military command went out for squads in every country to dig up a soil sample and use the Allied network to get it back to a lab in Peoria, Illinois. Thousands of samples arrived with thousands of different strains of the magic mould for the scientists to test. 

Lesson 2) When you need to convince others to help you, make it easy for them. 

Think about what they can do that sits inside their ‘day job’. Give them the tools they need to do it, and make them feel like part of a bigger effort. “Pick up some soil. You’re literally standing on it. Shove it in this bag. Save your friends, win the war”. 

But – and here’s the citrus twist – the scientists also needed some ‘closer to home’ varieties that they could be sure would thrive in the sweaty, humid environment of Illinois. So, they sent a junior lab technician, Mary Hunt, to the nearest green grocer to track down some rotting fruit. She came back with an assortment of putrid, oozy, slimy delicacies. And it was here they struck gold. In the form of a Cantaloup Melon. 

After a little lab manipulation, the strain they isolated from that melon  – the fungus Penicillium Chrysogeum – produced 1000x the amount of penicillin that the strain that Fleming had found 20 years earlier. And boom. Fast producing, cheap, easily manufacturable, ready to be given to every brewery in the country to aid the war effort. 

Lesson 3) Look beyond the obvious for inspiration. 

The answer isn’t always found if you do things the ‘proper route’. Sometimes, the best inspiration strikes if you keep it simple and just look around you. Don’t be afraid to take inspiration from the real world, not just the sterile world of work. The answer is inevitably there.

By 1943, the US had sufficient penicillin stocks to satisfy the demands of the Armed Forces of the United States, as well as their Allies.  And the dream of winning the war with a wonder drug was accomplished. 

So, to end this Codeine and Penicillin fuelled story, I’ll leave you with a thought. 

When you have an idea, but you don’t know how to make it work, think about these questions: 

  • What cause or idea could motivate people to get involved?
  • How can you make it easy for them to collaborate?
  • Where could you look, outside the obvious, for solutions?

Basically. How could you mobilise the world to find a mouldy melon? 

Do you want help to kickstart ideas and teams? Let’s talk

Watch this: WW2 era film about how penicillin was manufactured.

Read this: How was penicillin developed.