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Does God perform miracles today?The story of penicillin (part 2)

November 2004 | by Prof. John Rendle-Short

Last month we saw that the discovery of penicillin (and thus of antibiotics generally) involved what Professor R. G. Macfarlane has called an ‘incalculably large series of coincidents’. Let us now summarise these.

1. The way in which the special mould got into Fleming’s laboratory and onto a Petrie dish loaded with staphylococci bacteria (staphs) at just the optimum time.

2. The presence of the staphs anyway — their source remains unknown.

3. The failure of Lysol to sterilise that particular Petrie dish of mould and staphs. Probably the plate was not adequately submerged, but this remains a coincidence.

4. The dramatic changes in room temperatures in 1928 between August and September.

5. Being a bacteriologist, Alexander Fleming did not appreciate the clinical importance of his discovery. However, it required his trained eye to appreciate the significance of the halo of dead staphs surrounding the blob of mould. Fleming published only one article on penicillin, an important paper in a journal of experimental pathology. Yet ten years later this caught the eye of a research clinician, Dr Ernest Chain.

6. The rapidity with which Chain’s superior, Howard Florey, was alerted to the clinical importance of penicillin and immediately performed the necessary experiments to confirm this.

7. The impulse which led a later worker to look in a ditch and find a rotting cantaloupe melon — leading to the discovery of a rare mould which yielded much more penicillin than Fleming’s original mould.

8. The immediate intervention of Winston Churchill to boost the commercial production of penicillin.

9. The production of sufficient penicillin in the United States in time for D-Day — at just the right time and in the right place.

Chance or God?

What do you make of this ‘apparently random stream of chance events’, culminating in the miracle of D-Day? Reading articles and books on the subject, words such as ‘surprising’, ‘chance’, ‘one-in-a-thousand’, ‘amazing’ and ‘miracle’ occur frequently.

Fleming does not mention God, although he was a nominal Presbyterian in his youth (also a Freemason). On the other hand, Florey once wrote to his first wife, ‘I am in transition stage. I don’t believe in a personal God — this is indemonstrable. All such things are necessarily so. But I do think there is Something … immeasurably superior to our best thoughts’.

As I ponder on this series of ‘chances’, my mind turns to the Christian answer. Here, surely, we do find ‘something — indeed, Someone — immeasurably superior’.

We can consider God’s miraculous, creative power under three main headings:

The creation of the cosmos

‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). See also such passages as John 1:1-3: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through [or by] him, and without him nothing was made that was made’.

Again: ‘For of him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be glory for ever Amen’ (Romans 11:36); ‘For by him [Christ] all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things consist’ (Colossians 1:16-17).

The history of the ‘worlds’

‘In these last days [God has] spoken to us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things through whom also he made the worlds’ (Hebrews 1:2). ‘By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that the things, which are seen were not made of things which are visible’ (Hebrews 11:3).

Notice that ‘worlds’ here means literally an age or aeon — ‘the whole duration of the world; an immeasurable period of time; eternity’ (OED).

God’s dealings with men

There are many examples of this in the Bible. Here are a few reminders:

The story of Joseph. When Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers (Genesis 50:18-21) he said, ‘Am I in the place of God? … You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is at this day, to save many people alive’.

Mordecai’s answer to Esther. ‘Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ (Esther 4:13-14).

God’s providence extends to all men. It is noteworthy that the blessing of penicillin and similar antibiotics has come to the inhabitants of the whole earth, for ‘the Father makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45).

Proverbs 16:32 sums it up: ‘The lot is cast into the lap. But every decision is from the Lord.’ God is sovereign in providence as he is in salvation. ‘The most high rules in the kingdoms of men … he does according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth’ (Daniel 4:32, 35).

Back to the question

To return to the question with which we started: ‘Does God still perform miracles today?’ The answer is, ‘Certainly, yes’. God is still sovereign, and acts as and when he pleases.

His gift of antibiotics to man is a case in point. Today only older doctors and nurses can remember the desperate battles they fought against bacterial infectious diseases before the advent of penicillin, which ushered in the ‘antibiotic age’.

I have a vivid memory of the first time I saw penicillin in action. In World War II, as a junior doctor I was sent to a hospital near Swindon (UK), which was being used as a Casualty Clearing Station. It had the advantage of being situated close to an aerodrome.

On D-Day, planeloads of wounded soldiers were flown straight from the battlefront to the wards. Urgent cases had just had time to be given one intramuscular injection of penicillin before embarkation.

These men had a yellow label tied to their uniform to indicate the first dose had been administered. Unfortunately many did not know its importance, and I was certainly not able to enlighten them.

Also they were given the original impure ‘yellow’ form of the penicillin, which was extremely painful when injected. (I have a personal recollection of this!) Many of the soldiers simply tore the label off and threw it on the floor rather than risk another jab. So it was that some men with mortal wounds were offered the life-saving cure but rejected it.

This reminds me of a passage in Acts 13:46-48. Paul addressed the Jews: ‘It was necessary that the Word of God should be spoken to you [Jews] first. But since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold we turn to the Gentiles’.

Later in the chapter we read, ‘When the Gentiles heard this they were glad and glorified God, and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed’.

Honours

The adulation received by Sir Alexander Fleming was truly amazing. He spent the last years of his life travelling around the world, lecturing about penicillin and being greeted by huge crowds.

Macfarlane, in his biography of Fleming, lists five pages of assorted honours, a total of more than 105. They included The Nobel Prize; a knighthood; Honorary DSc degrees at the Universities of Princeton, Pennsylvania, Harvard, Dublin, Athens, Belfast, Brussels, Durham, London, Bristol, Utah and others.

Howard Florey was 17 years younger than Fleming. For his work on penicillin he received a life peerage, the Order of Merit, and the Nobel Prize.

While Fleming was touring the world, Florey was directing further research which yielded new antibiotics — and tremendous increases in knowledge in the field of immunology.

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