Bacteria. We do our best to keep it away. Soap and water. Disinfectants. The latest wonder product sold on late-night television.

Well, most people do. Alexander Fleming painted with bacteria.

Yes, I’m talking about Sir Alexander Fleming, the science guy who discovered penicillin on February 14, 1929. But it’s how he discovered penicillin that makes the story fascinating—and that has to do with art.

Everyone needs a hobby—even scientists. Fleming painted. He showed off watercolor paintings that convinced others he should not leave his day job as a scientist. But Fleming also painted with living organisms.

Like a tattoo artist? No, not those kinds of living organisms. Fleming found that the various strains of bacteria out there—like the ones crawling on your screen right now—actually display vibrant colors. So he collected these various organisms.  He was like a kid in a Lego store every time he discovered a new strain of bacteria.

His painting process was laborious and difficult. He had to find microbes of different colors. Before he placed them in the petri dish to create his art, he had to time the inoculations just right to get them to mature at the same time. Then he used a lab tool called a loop to place these microbes in the petri dish.

And since these microbes were alive, his art work never lasted long. The different species of bacteria would eventually grow into each other.

It was in one of these “paintings” that penicillin first made its appearance. The bacteria he had inoculated in a petri dish had grown into shapes like planets or stars against a dark sky. But there was a lighter-colored object: the Penicillium fungus. It was killing the bacteria around it, creating the dark sky.

On that morning, Sir Alexander Fleming just set out to create art. He ended up creating a masterpiece that’s saved countless lives.

When you face the unexpected … when you accidentally make a wrong turn  … when your job turns out to be different than the one you thought you were applying for … when you find yourself in a place you weren’t expecting …

… create a masterpiece.

Those intersections with the unexpected can be pleasant discoveries in your life. Someone may be on that path who needs your encouragement—or maybe someone’s on the path who will encourage you.

  • Don’t be disappointed by the unexpected. Grab it and use it. You gain nothing from complaining about the situation, so use it.
  • Ask God to open your eyes to what you might gain from the experience.
  • Look for the opportunity to shine the light of Christ in the place you didn’t expect to be.

“As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10).

Who knows? You just might do something life saving.

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For a full article on Fleming’s art, check out the article in Smithsonian Magazine.