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This Tiny Patch Of Mold Cost One Lucky Buyer Nearly $15,000

A capsule of the original mold from which Alexander Fleming made the drug known as penicillin, on view at Bonham's auction house in London. The international auction house says it has sold a small patch of mold for $14,617.
Alastair Grant

If you consider thousands of dollars for a tiny patch of decades-old mold a tad too pricey, well, maybe you're just not cut out for the high-stakes world of mold auctions. Because not even that hefty bit of green wouldn't have brought home the otherbit of green that just sold Wednesday at a London auction house.

The mold in question — which actually outpaced early expectations to be sold for a whopping $14,617, according to The Associated Press — is a capsule of the original Penicillium chrysogenum Alexander Fleming was working with when he discovered the antibiotic penicillin. Encased in a glass disc, inscribed with the words "the mould that first made Penicillin," and signed by Fleming himself, the little sample comes from the collection of Fleming's niece, Mary Anne Johnston.

Penicillin eventually went on to revolutionize medicine, which by the 1940s was mass-producing the antibiotic to treat many bacterial infections. "Scientists at Oxford University further developed penicillin," the AP explains, "and production was ramped up so that enough of the antibiotic would be available for the Allied invasion on D-Day in 1944."

And Fleming himself, it seems, was also distributing the original mold far and wide. Called "mold medallions," little items like the one sold Wednesday were passed out to notable figures worldwide. Bonhams, the London auction house, says Pope Pius XII got one, as did Winston Churchill, Marlene Dietrich and the Queen Mother Elizabeth.

"These insignificant-looking artefacts soon took on the status of holy relics," says Kevin Brown, author of Penicillin Man: Alexander Fleming and the Antibiotic Revolution, according to Bonhams.

Fleming seems to have used the mold medallions as a combination annual bonus and hostess gift. As Quartz puts it: "Award Fleming an honorary degree? You got mold. Dedicated service in his lab? Mold. A special audience with a celebrity or royal? Again: mold."

And Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth's husband, apparently received multiple copies.

"Every time he met Fleming, he got another one of these things," Brown tells the AP.

So, perhaps it's not the only patch of mold Fleming left behind — or, really, even close to the only one — but still, it remains a little splotch of history. And besides, Wednesday's buyer (whose name has not been released) at least got a better deal than the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which bought a similar sample for £23,000 in 1996 — or, Quartz notes, about $51,000 when adjusted for exchange rate and inflation.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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