The story goes that the British doctor Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin by chance in 1928 when he was working with bacterial cultures and, when he went on vacation, his samples became covered with a fungus of the Penicillium notatum strain, which destroyed the bacteria.
Fleming would publish his findings a year later, and in 1945 he would receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine for having contributed to the development of the first widely used antibiotic, which would save the lives of millions of people.
However, in Central America there is another story about the origins of Penicillin
According to this account, a year before Fleming took the vacations that would change the course of his life -and medicine-, a Latin American scientist had already written about the antibacterial properties of the Penicillium mushroom.
Furthermore, his discovery had not been fortuitous, but the result of more than a decade of research. That man was called Clodomiro Picado Twight and he was one of the most prestigious scientists in Costa Rica.
A life dedicated to science “Clorito” Picado, as Costa Ricans know him, came from a family with Spanish roots, on the paternal side, and British on the maternal side. From a young age he began to make scientific contributions: as soon as he graduated from high school, he began to teach Natural Sciences in a school and it is believed that it was for this purpose
that he wrote his first articles describing the characteristics of the Costa Rican fauna.
Due to his high qualifications, the Costa Rican Congress awarded him a scholarship to continue his higher studies in France. He graduated as a zoologist and botanist from the Sorbonne University, where he also obtained a doctorate in Natural Sciences. He then received training at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris and at the Institute of Colonial Medicine. In both institutions he was trained in Microbiology, Immunology and Clinical Chemistry, thus becoming an expert in a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines.
Upon his return to Costa Rica, in 1914, he assumed the direction of the Clinical Analysis Laboratory of the San Juan de Dios Hospital, a state medical center in the capital, San José, where he would develop his extensive and prolific career.
Picado introduced a large number of laboratory tests as a method of diagnosing diseases. And working in the hospital, he was able to observe and study a large number of diseases and disorders through experiments.
His varied experimental work allowed him to publish more than 100 investigations and books, both in his country and in France, on various aspects of science, one of the greatest scientific legacies in Latin America.
His eclectic works include infectious disease analysis, drinking water quality, thyroid pathophysiology, and aging. But one of his greatest contributions was in the area of ophidism, as the poisoning caused by snake bites is called. It is that, in addition to being a dedicated scientist, Picado was an intellectual committed to solving the problems of his country and helping his compatriots.
And one of the big problems he identified was the number of farm workers who were victims of snake bites. At that time it was common for farm owners to kick out workers who suffered from this type of poisoning, for which there was no cure in Costa Rica. Picado focused not only on healing the wounded, importing antivenom from the Butantan Institute in Brazil to create the country’s first serum “bank” at his hospital. He also studied snakes and their poisons to develop nationally produced Serum.
And on the social and political level, he promoted the development and approval of a “Defense Against Ophidism Act”, pioneering legislation in America, which required landowners to have serums and treat their affected workers.
What does all this have to do with penicillin, you may be wondering
Well, in 1999 two doctors from the San Juan de Dios Hospital who dedicated themselves to investigating the many manuscripts left by Picado, kept in the hospital archives since his death in 1944, announced that among those papers they found evidence that “Clorito” had discovered the properties of Penicillin years before Fleming. Not only that, they claimed that, unlike the British, who barely mentioned the therapeutic potential of his finding when he published it in 1929, Picado used fungal yeasts to treat patients with infectious diseases, managing to cure them.
They even pointed out that the results of their successful therapy were published by the prestigious Paris Biological Society in 1927, that is, two years before Fleming made known the antibiotic effects of Penicillin.
Doctors María de los Ángeles San Román and Edgar Cabezas Solera wanted to correct the “scientific injustice” of considering Fleming as the discoverer of Penicillin. “We do not want to overshadow Fleming, but it is necessary that the work of Dr. Picado be recognized,” Cabezas told the press. Since then, many Costa Ricans have maintained that the true discoverer of Penicillin was Clorito Picado.
Fleming or Picado?
To unravel this historical unknown, we consulted one of the people who most studied the work of Picado Twight. His name is José María Gutiérrez, and he is an emeritus professor at the Clodomiro Picado Institute (ICP), created by the Faculty of Microbiology of the University of Costa Rica in 1970, to investigate snakes and their poisons.
Gutiérrez, who in 2019 included an essay on Picado in his book “Reflections from the Academy”, explained that the subject of the discovery of Penicillin is “somewhat delicate” and requires a detailed explanation.
While it is true that the famous Costa Rican doctor used mushrooms to treat infectious diseases, managing to cure patients with various infections such as typhoid, paratyphoid and pneumonia, it is not correct to say that he discovered Penicillin, says Gutiérrez.
The reason is that what Picado used to treat these patients was a substance extracted from fungi of the genus Saccharomyces, not Penicillium, from which Penicillin comes. While Saccharomyces had curative effects, Picado could not reveal why they were effective.
“He argues that these preparations generated an immune response that protected against other microorganisms as well, which is why he called it a ‘therapeutic vaccine,'” says Gutiérrez.
To date, it is unknown what the protection mechanism of the “vaccine therapy” with Saccharomyces fungi is, but there is no evidence that they have an antibiotic effect, explains the expert.
“Already at the time the concept that fungi had an effect on bacteria was used, and various researchers had made observations in this regard, so it seems to me that Picado’s work, although it was very valuable, was not the first to demonstrate effects of fungi on bacteria”, says Gutiérrez. Picado also studied the fungus Penicillium sp., clarifies the ICP scientist. But he only investigated its effect on plants.
“At no time does Picado describe in his works that these extracts are used to study the effect on bacteria that cause diseases in humans. The observations were restricted to the effect of fungi on plants,” he details.
Not having been the one who discovered Penicillin, however, does not cloud the enormous legacy left by this man, who was honored throughout his life not only by scientific institutions in Costa Rica and France but also in several Latin American countries.
“Clodomiro Picado’s work constitutes a fundamental point of reference in the development of science in Costa Rica and the region,” Gutiérrez wrote in a biography dedicated to the scientist. According to the expert, Picado played a central role in the initial development of several branches of science in Costa Rica, including Immunology, Zoology, Botany, Ecology, Medical and Industrial Microbiology, Physiopathology and Agronomy.
“Picado’s main contribution was to have created, under very difficult conditions, a scientific tradition that has lasted until today in our country,” Gutiérrez said. For all this, Picado was declared “Benemérito de la Patria” (Well-deserved of the Fatherland) by the Costa Rican Congress in 1943, a year before he died.
Even long after his death, he continued to collect tribute. In 1998, the Central Bank of Costa Rica issued a 2000 colones note with his effigy. A more than deserved recognition for one of the greatest scientific luminaries of his time.