Doctor, are you willin', to try this penicillin?

Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine at the Science Museum, takes a look at the personal stories behind a recent addition to their collections - a bacteriologist's travel case from the Second World War

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a curator’s job is acquiring objects that become part of the National Collections. Not only do we go out and actively seek objects but we also get offered some real gems. A recent addition to the museum in particular caught my eye: a rather wonderful wooden chest.

Major Scott Thomson (1909-1992), a bacteriologist, used this chest to carry supplies of penicillin in order to combat gas gangrene during the Second World War.

Wooden chest used by Major Scott Thomson. Credit: Science Museum

Wooden chest used by Major Scott Thomson. Credit: Science Museum

During the Second World War, Scott Thomson was a pathologist to various military hospitals, until 1943 when he was appointed by the War Office as a bacteriologist in the Penicillin Research Team. Thomson was posted to Algiers in May 1943 with surgeon Ian Fraser after undergoing special training at Oxford with Howard Florey.

He returned to Britain with the successful results of his trials, just as the MRC Penicillin Committee decided to concentrate supplies of penicillin in one area of battle activity in Italy. In December 1943, Thompson was posted to Monte Cassino and, according to his obituary in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, he was responsible for all of the world’s supply of penicillin during those months – a fact his daughters remember him retelling.

Like many of his contemporaries, Scott Thomson talked little about his time during the Second World War. However, I was lucky enough to meet Major Scott Thomson’s family who delighted me with snippets of information about his experiences.

The penicillin units, which consisted of just five people, were often at the back of every march as they were considered at the lower end of the army hierarchy. The lines between Allied and Axis forces were often so blurred that senior Axis officers wandered into the Allied camp.

Scott Thomson believed that the medical profession’s job was to cure. He determined that bacteriology was the main way of doing this and so focussed his research in antibiotics. By the late 1960s, his daughters remember him talking about the overuse of antibiotic resistance – a subject that is now always in the news.

By far, my favourite snippet the family were kind enough to share was the lyrics to Song for Penicillin, which may have been penned by Thompson's German friend with lyrics in German, English and Italian. The tune is unknown, but is believed to be based a popular German oom-pah song. I’ll leave you with the chorus of the song:


German Doctor, are you willin’?

Go and try this Penicillin

This is something else than killin’ – Penicillin!

Penicillin! Penicillin!


This article was taken from The Science Museum's blog.

You can discover more snippets of curious history and scientific discovery in the current iPad issue and inaugural print edition of Ernest Journal, on sale now.