In 1920s London, Queen Mary, the formidable wife of King George V, made a visit to the Royal St. Mary’s Hospital in London. On her tour was a display of “microbial art,” the hobby of one of the doctors, including a Union Jack created in a petri dish by the meticulous use of different species of fungus. The Queen sped past dismissively. What on earth could such nonsense have to do with the urgent work of such a prestigious hospital?
But you may have heard of the doctor-artist so abruptly ignored. His name was Alexander Fleming, the man responsible for arguably the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century: penicillin.
It turns out that Fleming, a self-taught artist as well as man of science, was an inveterate tinkerer renowned for the messiness of his laboratory. This less-focussed mindset is what allowed him to see, in an experiment gone awry, the possibility of antibiotics.
In finding a rival to penicillin for a 20th century breakthrough, perhaps manned flight would qualify. Here’s how Wilbur Wright described the foundation of their creative process: “From the time we were little children my brother . . . and myself lived together, played together, worked together and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussions between us.”