Art and Science – Painting With Penicillin

You may be familiar with Robin Ince from The Infinite Monkey Cage which he presents on Radio 4 with Prof Brian Cox. He also tweets a lot on twitter (@robinince) and this morning he had a link to an article in the Smithsonian magazine about Alexander Fleming who, it seems, was an artist as well as a scientist.


Here are a few extracts. You can read the full article here.

“Among the classic examples of the unpredictable nature of discovery is that of the Scottish son of a pig farmer, Alexander Fleming. As you may have learned in school, Fleming kept a messy lab. He left petri dishes, microbes and nearly everything else higgledy-piggledy on his lab benches, untended. One day in September of 1928, Fleming returned from a trip and found a goop of some sort growing into a stack of abandoned bacterial cultures and killing them. The circle of goop was a fungus. In that chance moment, Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin, properties that would change the world.

“Because of Fleming and the scientists who elaborated on his discovery, millions of lives were saved. Some of you are alive to read this because of Fleming. Even if you were not saved by penicillin or some other antibiotic yourself, one of  your ancestors likely was…


“In addition to working as a scientist, and well before his discovery of  antibiotics, Fleming painted. He was a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, where he created amateurish watercolors. Less well known is that he also painted in  another medium, living organisms. Fleming painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes using bacteria. He produced these paintings by growing microbes with different natural pigments in the places where he wanted different colors. He would fill a petri dish with agar, a gelatin-like substance, and then use a wire lab tool called a loop to inoculate sections of the plate with different species. The paintings were technically very difficult to make. Fleming had to find microbes with different pigments and then time his inoculations such that the different species all matured at the same time. These works existed only as long as it took one species to grow into the others. When that happened, the lines between, say, a hat and a face were blurred; so too were the lines between art and  science.”


(I’m sorry that the illustrations are small but they are as they came with the article.”


About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website
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7 Responses to Art and Science – Painting With Penicillin

  1. Pingback: Art and Science – Painting With Penicillin | Mim Sanders

  2. killkaties says:

    Absolutely fascinating!

  3. seascapesaus says:

    Great concept for ephemeral artwork and definitely an improvement on dead fly art, but I think he lacked the artist’s eye!

  4. Pingback: Art And Science – Again! | notes to the milkman

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