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Ignaz Semmelweis (pronounced Simel-vice)
Commonly known as 'The saviour of women', Semmelweis was a Hungarian Doctor who, working at Viena General Hospital demonstrated the effectiveness of handwashing in reducing the spread of infection. Semmelweis noticed that a large number of women were dying of childbirth fever, a bacterial infection that affected new mothers. He further noticed that most of these deaths were from wards where the surgeons did not scrub their hands between patients and operations. Despite this heroic finding, Semmelweis had heated arguments with his supperiors and colleagues who did not agree with him and he died a sad death at a mental asylum.
Semmelweis's findings could be counted as the true origin of the hand sanitisers that we are now using to fight infections like Corona virus and MRSA.
Alexander Fleming was a scientist who worked on a variety of things but he is better known for his famous 1928 experiments in which he was working on bacteria called Staphylococcus which causes sore throats and other illnesses. After leaving some petri dishes with a culture of staphylococcus for some days, he observed that some dishes had mould (fungi) growing in them, in addition to bacteria. What was unusual was that the area near the mould had no bacteria around it. He hypothesised that the mould probably produced a chemical that killed the bacteria and carried out further experiments to verify this. Indeed this came up to be correct and the chemical was later isolated by other scientists and called penicillin after the name of the fungus which produces it- Penicillium notatum, now known as Penicillium chrysogenum.
a) What does this story teach us about scientific discoveries?
b) What does Fleming's story teach us about making scientific observations?
c) Imagine you were Fleming, what other hypotheses could you have come up with?
d) Test Fleming's hypothesis: Make a plan of how you could conduct an investigation to test Fleming's hypothesis. Identify all the 3 kinds of variables (dependent, independent, control).
e) Fleming's busy life- Yeeh, but not the end of the story! Florey and Chain's work- what does this teach us about scientific discoveries and how scientists work? Make a few points to brainstorm and discuss with a friend. Is it fair for others to claim credit rather than the original discoverer? Why, why not?
f) Penicillin has been produced and used in tonnes since World War 2,
i. What have been the problems with its excesssive and indisciminate use?
ii. Give and explain to someone a modern day problem/infection caused by this.
Edward Jenner- The origin (or the explanation of vaccination)
Another big moment in Biology which started from careful, critical observation is the story of Edward Jenner. In the 1780s, smallpox was a devastating disease worldwide. Englishman Jenner observed that people (mainly women) who milked cows caught a mild form of smallpox, called cow pox and never contracted smallpox. His hypothesis was that if you are injected with cowpox (mild), it would make the body able to fight off smallpox (deadly).
His deadly experiment!
When you are vaccinated, you are injected (or given a dose of) a dead or weakened (attenuated) pathogen or its antigens (proteins). White blood cells detect these as if it were the proper pathogen and start the imune response. They make antibodies to fight of future entry of the pathogen and memory cells to recognise the pathogen in future.