Science as Narrative: The story of the discovery of penicillin, Lucy Avraamidou and Jonathan Osborne

Lucy Avraamidou, University of Nicosia

Jonathan Osborne, King’s College London

Department of Education, University of Nicosia

46 Makedonitissas Ave. 1700 Nicosia, Cyprus




Science as Narrative: The story of the discovery of penicillin

This theoretical paper explores the use of narrative as a captivating vehicle for representing and communicating scientific information. It does so with the use of a narrative-based exhibit found at the Alexander Fleming Museum in London. Built upon theoretical underpinnings that point to the value of narrative for learning, we examine the necessary components, if any, of narrative alongside with excerpts and images from the exhibit describing the discovery of penicillin. We wander through this specific example about what it would mean to narrativize science, as an attempt to make it meaningful to and accessible by the public.



Penicillin, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1945:


“I am going to tell you about the early days of penicillin, for this is the part of the penicillin story which earned me a Nobel Award….The origin of penicillin was the contamination of a culture plate of staphylococci by a mould. It was noticed that for some distance around the mould colony the staphylococcal colonies had become and seemed to demand investigation, so the mould was isolated in pure culture and some of its properties were determined…The mould was found to belong to the genus Penicillium…Having got the mould in pure culture I planted it on another culture plate and after it had grown at room temperature for 4 or 5 days I streaked different microbes radially across the plate. Some of them grew right up to the mould – others were inhibited for a distance of several centimeters. This showed that the mould produced an antibacterial substance which affected some microbes and not others…” (Alexander Fleming, 1945)



The story captured in the above Nobel lecture extract is at the core of Alexander Fleming Museum in London, which describes the discovery of penicillin. What is of interest to us, besides the content of the story, is the use of narrative as a captivating vehicle for representing and communicating scientific information and is the focus of this paper.


  1. Introduction

Our interest in the role of narrative in communicating science to the public stems from criticism on the way science is portrayed and communicated to the public. Many researchers have discussed how science is often miscommunicated and misrepresented through the media offering stereotypical images of scientists, which in turn limits the public’s understandings of the nature of science. To address the problem of making science approachable and meaningful to the public we believe it is necessary to explore new modes of communicating science’s explanatory themes to the public. As Montgomery (1996) has argued ‘science must come down and become a part of what is common, what is accountable.’ (p. 51). One approach to this challenge, we argue, maybe at the use of narrative as a vehicle through which scientific information is communicated. Our specific interest is in narratives of, or about, science that have the potential to engage the general reader.

Turney (2001), for instance, has noted that ‘every successful non-fiction writer will tell you that the way to interest and engage the general reader is to tell a story…stories involve struggles, conflicts or adventures, have heroes and villains, complication and resolution (p. 47). Other reasons for the use of narrative are provided by perspectives from discursive psychology – a disciplinary hybrid combining psychology and linguistics, that sees narrative which provides support to narrative understanding as a major meaning-making strategy (Lyle, 2000). Studies of memory based on examination of the everyday talk have shown that memory is narrative reconstruction of events and that ‘there is no one-to-one correlation between what happened and people’s memory when asked to account for events (Edwards & Potter, 1992, p. 48).


2. Theoretical Underpinnings

Bruner (1991) differentiated between two distinct ways that humans order experience. He called the first one paradigmatic, which refers to organizing thought that is logico-scientific, which is based on reasons. The second way that humans order experience, according to Bruner, is narrative and deals with the creation of stories. As he described, narrative is used to refer to: a) a way of sculpting and structuring information through expressions of different media into readily understood forms that guide learners’ comprehension; and b) a cognitive mode that learners use to make sense out of information or experience. Narrative then becomes part of how people understand the world in which they live and serves as a way of communicating that understanding to others. The corollary, as Graesser, Olde and Klettke (2002) have argued, is that narrative has a privileged status among various types of discourse:

The situations and episodes in narrative have a close correspondence to everyday experiences, so the comprehension mechanisms are much more natural than those recruited during the comprehension of other discourse genres such as argumentation, expository text, and logical reasoning (p. 229).

Although narrative is as old as Aesop, in contemporary culture it is expressed through a growing diversity of different mediums such as books, plays, films and can be experienced in different ways. Moreover, because of narrative’s dominance as a form of communication it has been examined throughout the years in a number of different disciplines such as education, sociology, philosophy, history, fiction, film and others. For instance, Chatman (1978) in her book Story and Discourse, defined narrative and described the ways in which it can be actualized:

Narrative is basically a kind of text organization, and that organization, that schema, needs to be actualized: in written words, as in stories and novels; in spoken words combined with the movement of actors imitating characters against sets which imitate places, as in plays and films; in drawings; in comic strips; in dance movements, as in narrative ballet and in mime; and even in music (pp. 117-118).

However our concern is with narratives realisation in text, as in stories. Stories are used every day as a way of making sense of and communicating events in the world. Movies, books, televisions and everyday conversations are filled with the telling of stories (Shank & Berman, 2002). Stories are essentially a sub-set of the narrative genre and describe a series of actions and experiences made by a number of real or imaginary characters (Ricoeur, 1980). According to Shole (1980), a story is a narrative with a certain very specific syntactic shape (i.e., beginning-middle-end) and with a subject matter.

The question then becomes one of: what is a story, and what purpose does it serve? According to Shank and Berman (2002), a story is, “a structured, coherent retelling of an experience or a fictional account of an experience” (p. 288) and that ‘in some sense, all stories can be considered didactic in nature, in that they are intended to teach or convey something to the listener.” Likewise, in a book aptly entitled Teaching as Storytelling, Egan makes the case that stories form a natural vehicle and means of educating students not only about their cultural and historical roots but also the scientific descriptions of reality.

Stories then are a vehicle through which experiences and events are communicated amongst people. Researchers have contended that stories have a significant effect on influencing people’s understandings and beliefs, and essentially, promoting a societal and cultural change (Brock, Strange & Green, 2002; Shank & Berman, 2002). Brock et al., (2002) argued, for instance, that the impact of stories on people’s beliefs and behaviours is enormous, citing the impact of the best-selling books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As they stated, “it is very hard to make the case that any rhetorical presentation of the 19th century had an impact that was even remotely comparable to that of the fictional narrative” (p. 3). According to Schank and Berman (2002), “for communication, memory and learning purposes, stories are likely to be richer, more compelling, and more memorable than the abstracted points we ultimately intend to convey or learn when we converse with others” (p. 293).

Built upon these theoretical underpinnings that point to the value of narrative for learning, one question emerges for us – What are the necessary components, if any, of narrative that may be of value to science education? Our answer draws on our meta-analysis of work done on narrative (i.e., Chatman, 1978; Guilbert, Norris, Hakimelahi & Philips, 2003; Toolan, 2001) and is presented in Table 1. We argue that narrative has seven essential elements though not all are equally important.

Table 1: Necessary components of a narrative

Narrative Element

Description of element

Purpose To help us understand the natural and human world.   In the case of the natural world, narratives help the reader to invent new entities, concepts and some picture of the scientist’s vision of the material world.
Events A chain or sequence of events that are connected to each other
Structure An identifiable structure (beginning, middle, end) where events are related temporally


Narratives concern the past
Agency Actors or entities cause and experience events. Actors may either be human or material entities who act on each other.
Narrator The teller who is either a real character or alternatively, a sense of a narrator.
Reader The reader must interpret or recognise the text as a narrative


First, we would argue that the purpose of narrative is not just to help us understand the human world, as Guilbert et al., (2003) have stated, but also to understand the natural world. For if there is any value to narrativising science it must be to gain an understanding of not only the human and social world but also the natural world which is populated with non-human agents. At its core science is about developing causal explanations of the material world – what causes global warming, why do people get AIDS, what do rainbows occur and more. Causes are commonly modelled on the action or agency of one object on another. Canonically this is associated with a person but is commonly projected onto objects endowing them with agency. So, the increased level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere (an event) prevents (is agentive) such that long wavelength infra red radiation is prevented from escaping from the atmosphere. In such a manner, one object affects another. The explanation is constructed by bringing into being imagined entities that can, in turn, affect other things, or be affected by them. Agency is then inherent to all causal action and not just to human agents.


  1. The Alexander Fleming Museum

The Alexander Fleming museum has in our view, a strong narrative – a feature which makes the conveyed information not only a successful communication of the history of science but also a memorable experience. To illustrate why we believe this to be so, we use examples from the exhibition. The Alexander Fleming museum is a small, 3-room museum portraying information on the discovery of penicillin. The first room is the laboratory in which Alexander Fleming used to work, which is restored to its condition in 1928, when penicillin was discovered. The second room presents a video and the third room includes displays presented in a chronological order. Both the video and the displays, we argue, are structured as narrative and present information about Alexander Fleming’s life and work and its significance to the society.


The story of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin is presented in this manner:

Alexander Fleming was born in 1881 at Lochfield, a farm outside Darvel, a small town in Ayrshire, Scotland. He was the third child, with seven other brothers and sisters. After completing his education at Regent Street Polytechnic, London in 1897, he took an office job for a few years.

The displays and video presented at the museum provide biographical information on Alexander Fleming’s life. Examining the way this information is structured in light of our perspectives on narrative there are two clearly identifiable components:

  • The time is past tense
  • There exists a sense of a narrator – an essential distinguishing feature of narrative
  • There is a human actor: Alexander Fleming

The story then continues providing information on how Fleming attended the medical school of St Mary’s in London to study bacteriology. During World War I, he interrupted his studies to serve as a captain in the Army Medical Corps. The narrative then goes on to describe how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.

When Alexander Fleming returned from a 2-week holidays, he noticed a clear halo surrounding the yellow-green growth of a mould that had accidentally contaminated the plate. Unknown to him, a spore of a rare variant called Penicillium notatum had drifted in from a mycology lab one floor below. Luck would have it that Fleming had decided not to store his culture in a warm incubator, and that London was then hit by a cold spell, giving the mould a chance to grow. Later, as the temperature rose, the Staphylococcus bacteria grew like a lawn, covering the entire plate — except for the area surrounding the mouldy contaminant.

Components of narrative that are present in this part of the story, as we see it, are:

  • A chain of events that are connected to each other: Alexander Fleming had stored his culture in a warm incubator before he left and when he returned he noticed a halo surrounding the growth of a mould.
  • There exist entities that act on each other: Because of the cold the mould grew and then when the temperature rose the bacteria (staphylococcus) grew and covered the entire plate except the area surrounding the mouldy contaminant.
  • There is a purpose and that is to help us understand how penicillin was discovered.

The exhibit goes one to discuss Fleming’s discovery in relation to the world’s reaction:

Fleming contributed his findings to the medical world in 1929, but few seemed interested. He even published a report on the benefits of penicillin in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. Although Fleming continued working with the mould for some time, a team of chemists and mould specialists eventually took over the work. The research was slowed when several of them died or moved away.

More events, as components of the narrative, are described in the above extract. The actor (i.e., Fleming) caused events: contributed his findings to the medical world by publishing a report to a journal; a team of chemists and mould specialists took over the work with the mould.

Other parts of the display illustrate the significance of the discovery of penicillin to the world and particularly its use during the World War II where the need for an antibacterial was great.

Unfortunately, the interest in penicillin did not peak again until World War II, and Howard Florey and Ernst Chain picked up the research again, found a way to purify it, and presented this powerful antibiotic to the world. Dr. Fleming and his many years of research were not forgotten. He was knighted in 1944 and shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine with British scientist Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey. In 1947 Dr. Fleming became director of the Wright-Fleming Institute of St. Mary’s Hospital.

It becomes evident throughout the story of the discovery of penicillin, that there is a sense of a narrator sharing the purpose of the narrative: information is provided about Alexander Fleming’s life; how penicillin was discovered and explained as is its role and value in World War and its enormous medical impact. Moreover, there is an identifiable structure (beginning, middle, end) where events are related and that structure is, in this case, a chronological description of Alexander Fleming’s actions. There is obviously a sequence of events about the discovery of penicillin that are connected to each other and are caused by the actor (Fleming) in this story. With respect to the last component essential for narrative (i.e., the reader must recognize the text as narrative), we argue that the structural and sequential design of the exhibit strongly cues the reader to recognize the exhibit as a narrative of a scientific discovery. For the reasons above, we would argue that this exhibit is an exemplar narrative-based exhibit. Our hypothesis is that such exhibits are more likely to communicate their message effectively, and be remembered – an area to which research should be directed.


  1. Concluding thoughts

In this paper we have attempted to make the case for the use of narrative in communicating science as a way of making it meaningful to and accessible by the public. We have built our case on Montgomery’s (1996) view that the language of science “makes us feel excluded from a certain grown-up world of truth and truth telling” (p. 2) and we have drawn upon Bruner’s (1991) argument that narrative is central in how people understand the world in which they live and serves as a means to communicate personal understandings to others. In an attempt to apply these theoretical perspectives in practice, we provided an example of a narrative-based museum conveying the story of the discovery of penicillin.

However, there exists the question of what kind of science is communicated through narrative. Or, if it is at all possible to portray through narrative how science is practised by scientists and how scientific knowledge is constructed. The crucial question then becomes one of: Is narrative an appropriate vehicle to enhance public understanding of science? We argue that narrative is a useful means of translating the conceptual complexities of science and supporting scientific literacy as long as content knowledge is not the only criterion for public literacy and the purpose of science education is not to produce scientists. Rather, we maintain, the purpose of science education is to provide future citizens with an appreciation of the cultural value of science and its strengths and weaknesses. In this sense, we argue, narrative becomes of value in supporting the understanding of scientific matters by non-experts. We share Bryant’s view (as cited in Stocklmayer, 2001), on what the public understanding of science ought to be about:

The public understanding of science is the comprehension of scientific facts, ideas and policies, combined with a knowledge of the impact such facts, ideas and policies have on the personal, social and economic well-being of the community (p. 145)

This definition includes an understanding and knowledge of the interrelationship between science and society, the potential impact and the effect of the cultural context and its values on science. All of these are exemplified through the Alexander Fleming narrative-based displays. This is not to argue, however, that all exhibits and exhibitions should be designed and structured in the form of narrative. Rather, the intent is to provide a perspective on exploring new means of communicating science in informal settings. We hope these arguments about narrative have helped to establish the case for its role in communicating science – a role which our work seeks to explore and analyse.






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