The Moldy Melon That Saved the World! (And the Woman Who Found It)
By Heath Shive
Before the Second World War, millions died from bacterial infections. Global war only increased the death toll of these infections. And the world was saved by a rotten melon found by a woman named “Moldy Mary”!
Science credits Alexander Fleming with discovering penicillin. And he did! But the development of penicillin into a viable and mass-produced medicine was spearheaded by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley.
Fleming, Florey, and Chain all shared a Nobel Prize for penicillin. Heatley’s contribution was ignored. It was Heatley who performed the actual testing and refinement of penicillin, but he was pushed out by Florey and Chain (both were kind of prima donnas).
During World War II, the development for mass-production of penicillin was performed in Peoria, Illinois. Heatley contributed greatly to the mass-production process. Dr. A. J. Moyer took all credit for himself, so he could have sole patents on the process – making him a fortune.
However, many people contributed to the success and development of penicillin, and all their names go unsung.
Today we sing to one more name – Mary Hunt.
And we sing to her magic melon too.
The Holy Grail…of Fungus
Penicillin is derived primarily from the mold called Penicillium notatum chrysogenum.
The biggest problem with penicillin was that it was very difficult to mass-produce. So scientists began to look for a miracle strain of P. chrysogenum that reproduced at a high rate.
Soil samples were sent to Peoria from around the world by military personnel. All without success.
The mycologist Kenneth Raper thought that local sources should be searched too. Raper sent Mary Hunt to search the local grocery stores for rotten fruit.
Mary Hunt brought back so much slimy fruit that they gave her the nickname “Moldy Mary” – proof that smart-asses can exist anywhere at any time.
While Peoria scientists were searching soil samples from around the world, Mary Hunt found a moldy cantaloupe – but her melon had a strain of P. chrysogenum that reproduced madly!
As one commentator wrote, that strain of P. chyrysogenum “became the primogenitor of most of the penicillin produced in the world.”
Mary Hunt was as lucky to find that moldy cantaloupe as Alexander Fleming was to find P. chrysogenum in the first place!
You Never Know When You Could Change the World
Mohammed Ali once said: “If they can make penicillin from moldy bread, they can sure make something of you!”
But penicillin doesn’t come from moldy bread.
Penicillin came from a rotten cantaloupe that somebody threw away as trash – but which Mary Hunt found...and changed the world forever.
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Lax, Eric. The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle. Henry Holt and Company, 2004.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.