Photo: AP

The idea that a bit of gross mold would be worth $14,617 seems absurd until you realize it may be the most important mold to that was ever grown.

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Bonhams auctioned off the mold that belonged to Dr. Alexander Fleming earlier today, along with a handwritten inscription from Fleming himself that describes it as “the mould that first made penicillin.” The buyer who was willing to pay such exorbitant amounts for a piece of science history did not wish to be identified.

Fleming is credited as the man who discovered penicillin, though he shared a Nobel prize for the medical find with Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Walter Florey in 1945. The fact that the mold belonged to Fleming is not in doubt, but no one really knows if it really came from his original test batch of Penicillium chrysogenum.

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It took many years for Fleming to get the scientific world to take notice of his work. But once he did, he proceeded to give out gifts of the mold in round glass cases to dignitaries and scientists. Dozens of them were presented to people like Pope Pius XII, Winston Churchill, and Marlene Dietrich.

According to Kevin Brown, archivist at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum, not all recipients of the world-changing, infection-fighting fungus were happy about it. In particular, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip was given the gift multiple times and never really appreciated it. “Every time he met Fleming, he got another one of these things,” Brown tells The Washington Post.

Honestly, mold is rather disgusting. It’s understandable that someone might be perplexed. But at the time, people may not have realized just how important penicillin would turn out to be. Estimates of the lives saved by Fleming’s discovery range from 80 to 200 million people.

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And now some rich person owns a disgusting, life-saving piece of history.

[The Washington Post]