National Curriculum Science Area: History and Science

Key Stage: 4 and post-16

Length of session: 1–2 hours

Maximum group size: 25–50 students

This session explores the story of penicillin from its discovery by Alexander Fleming to its war-time development in Oxford. Students have the opportunity to analyse the complex social factors which influence scientific research and development, and to increase their understanding of how science works.

The session makes use of the Museum’s collection of objects and archive material to explore the story of the development of the antibiotic, penicillin including the work of Florey and Chain on the isolation and production of penicillin in wartime Oxford, which led to the development of a new generation of powerful antibiotics.

After an introduction to the story of penicillin, students will be guided through a series of activities designed to draw out various themes and controversies, which help to build an understanding of the social and historical factors involved in scientific developments. These activities include an exercise in sequencing and deconstructing historical images, and a summary of key ideas.

This session can be adapted to consider ethical questions surrounding the development of modern medicines and may be of particular interest to students aiming to study medicine or pharmacology.