Stop me if you’ve heard this one (and you probably have about this antibiotic discovery of penicillin story…)

When a poor Scottish farmer named Fleming heard cries of distress coming from a nearby bog, he ran to rescue a young boy who was stuck in the black muck.

Then next day, the boy’s father, a nobleman, paid a visit to the Fleming farm and offered a generous reward. But Fleming refused to accept money for doing what any decent person would have done.

When the nobleman spotted Fleming’s son, he made another offer–to provide his son with the same high level of education he was planning for his own son.

Fleming agreed. His son–Alexander Fleming–eventually graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London and went on to discover Penicillin.

Years later, the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia. And what saved his life? Penicillin.

His name: Sir Winston Churchill.

That’s a remarkable story, so no surprise that it’s been passed around the Internet for many years in spite of the fact that it’s completely false.

Alexander Fleming‘s medical education was actually paid for with an inheritance from his uncle. And although Winston Churchill was once diagnosed with pneumonia while in the Middle East, he was successfully treated with other drugs because Penicillin wasn’t readily available.

Well that’s no fun! The amazing coincidence story is much more interesting, so I’m sure it will continue to circulate for years to come.

But the story is helpful in illustrating just how easy it is for false information to take on a life of its own and become accepted as fact.

Here’s a good example: Antibacterial soap is a better defense against infection than normal soap, right?

Unfortunately, that’s probably as false as the Winston Churchill story.

Three years ago, a University of Michigan team reviewed data and reported that antibacterial soap products in which triclosan is the active ingredient is no better than normal soaps at preventing infection.

And triclosan is the big dog of antibacterial products.

According to a 2004 report in the journal Pesticides and You (yes, there really is a journal for everything!), triclosan is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent that’s used in hundreds of products. But not just soaps. The chemical also shows up in Colgate Total toothpaste, Right Guard Sport Deodorant, and Solarcaine First Aid Medicated Spray.

And here’s where things take a very dark turn: Triclosan may promote antibiotic resistance, which would actually make you MORE vulnerable if exposed to infections and hospital superbugs like MRSA and C. diff.

The speed of bureaucracy

Early this year, Representative Edward Markey (chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment) asked the FDA to update the scientific review of triclosan.

In their response, FDA officials noted that recent research raises “valid concerns” about triclosan safety. In addition to antibiotic resistance, concerns include animal studies that suggest the chemical may interfere with hormone regulation.

So, the FDA has started a new review of triclosan safety. Ready for a laugh? Agency officials say they’ll have their report ready in the spring of 2011.


Want to avoid triclosan right now? Why not? It’s apparently not doing anyone any good. Just Google “triclosan-free” and you’ll come up with thousands of websites that carry soap and other products that leave triclosan out of the mix.

And if you’re wondering just how serious the problem of antibiotic resistance really is, consider that this danger was first recognized more than 80 years ago by one of the foremost medical scientists of the 20th century, who discovered the antibiotic substance penicillin.

His name: Alexander Fleming.

Adapted from: