Friday, September 24, 2010

Arty Farty Friday ~ Sir Alexander Fleming & Microbial Art

This has to be the weirdest Arty Farty Friday subject yet! Sir Alexander Fleming, Scottish research scientist who, in September 1928, accidentally discovered what the Penicillium fungus he found growing on discarded petri dishes in his messy laboratory was capable of. His discovery and subsequent experiments were later taken up and elaborated upon by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain. Mass producing penicillin became a reality with funds from the U.S. and British governments. Mass production began after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; by D-day they had enough penicillin to treat all the wounded allied forces.

But "where's the art?" I hear you cry.

I'll borrow from the Smithsonian website (order of some paragraphs changed to suit context of this post. Some parts bold-highlighted in connection with astrology and his natal chart): Painting with Penicillin - Alexander Fleming's Germ Art
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.

Fleming’s discovery of the effects of penicillin, the compound produced by the fungus, was a function of his eye for the rare, an artist’s eye. Other scientists had undoubtedly seen Penicillium growing on their petri dishes before Fleming, but they had thrown those dishes away as failures (In fact, both Chinese and Greek medicine had used fungus topically to treat bacterial infections for several thousand years). Not so for Fleming, who spent his life searching for outliers and the situations that favored them. The outliers were not lucky accidents. They were instead, for Fleming, the living art of discovery.

It is not clear why Fleming started painting microbes; perhaps he picked up a brush one day and noticed that it felt like the loop he used for his bacteria. Or maybe it was due to the promiscuous sexual predilections of artists. Fleming worked at St. Mary’s hospital in London, where he treated syphilis cases. Many of his patients were painters, and those painters sometimes gave Fleming paintings and perhaps even lessons in return for treatment. Fleming's palette grew richer with time as he found bacteria with the colors he needed. He found joy in discovering a strange new strain of bacteria, in the way that a field biologist might feel the same in happening upon some new and wondrous bird. He collected unusual life forms in the hope that one of them might someday prove useful.
Fleming was a self-taught artist; he had no real artistic training and so he painted what occurred to him. The paintings had little in the way of dimension or nuance and yet still had a vigor, heightened by the reality that they in fact were alive. As one breathed on the paintings, they breathed back.

One could view these paintings as just another manifestation of the strange ways in which scientists become obsessed (biologists have more than a fair share of quirky hobbies—miniature trains, headstone photography, broken glass collections). But as scientists have begun to reconsider Fleming’s story, it has become clear that these little paintings were more than art.

On that fateful morning, what Fleming actually discovered was, in a way, a version of one of his paintings. Each of the colonies of Staphylococci bacteria that he had inoculated on the plate had grown into a small shape resembling a planet or a star in a night sky. But there among his wild planets was something else, a larger, lighter body at the top of the dish, the Penicillium fungus. Around it the sky was dark, where the bacteria were dying. It was his masterpiece, his “rising sun,” the painting that would save more lives than any other discovery.

Fleming’s bacteria paintings have many descendants. A group of modern painters is using bacteria to produce all sorts of images. Glowing bacteria are used as a scientific tool. The most important descendant of Fleming’s artistic methods, though, are the thousands of modern scientists who, like Fleming, make discoveries by looking for the unusual.

Natal chart of Sir Alexander Fleming, data from Astrodatabank. I'm looking for emphasis on Saturn (science) and even more important in this context, Uranus, planet of the unexpected & invention. If Aquarius isn't highlighted in the chart, its modern ruler Uranus ought to be. Fleming's art isn't "great art", though Venus, planet of the arts and/or Neptune (creativity) ought to be well placed to endow the "artist's eye" which was possibly Fleming's most useful extra gift. Let's see.

Yes!! It's all there.

Saturn at 12 Taurus (ruled by Venus) in harmonious trine to Uranus at 12 Virgo.
Saturn is also conjunct Neptune at 16 Taurus.
Sun at 13 Leo semi sextiles (helpful) Uranus at 12 Virgo.

The main cluster of planets covers 12 Taurus to 1 Gemini, so Venus, ruler of Taurus is well to the fore, though the planet itself is some degrees away from the cluster at 29 Gemini.

Moon in Sagittarius lay in 6th house of service, as befits a scientist striving to help mankind.

Ascendant in mid-Cancer, a sign often connected to doctors and the medical profession, sextiles Neptune (creativity) in Taurus.

Below are the only examples I've found on-line, enough to give us a glimpse of Fleming's microbial art. For examples of microbial art by others see THIS website.


juliedemboski said...

This is amazing, Twi--thanks for sharing it!

Gian Paul said...

Two brothers living in Geneva, the elder a Capricorn, the younger an Aries who caught a very high fever (not uncommon with Aries): This reportedly happened just before WWII started. The elder brother traveled to London to get some heard-of "miraculous Penicillin". With the help of some good friends there he managed to get some, went back to Geneva as fast as then possible, saved his brother's life and still today asks for recognition. To say that Capricorns can be hard on Aries!

Wisewebwoman said...

Oh where on earth do you dig this stuff up, my friend!
Marvellous insight into the genius Fleming!

Nevin said...

very very interesting.... :)

Twilight said...

Julie ~~ My pleasure - glad you enjoyed!

Gian Paul ~~ Nice and very relevant story, GP.
Capricorn-types sometimes get bad reviews, often very undeserved.

Twilight said...

WWW ~~~ I'm like a kid in a candy store trolling around the "interwebs". ;-)

Twilight said...

Nevin ~~~ Am very pleased it was of interest. :-)

Twilight said...

RJ ADAMS (posted in wrong place)

Moved your post as best I could RJ - thanks, and you're right, it does.

"Fascinating stuff, Twilight. It sure beats painting by numbers!"

September 24, 2010 10:22 PM