Public Health Under the Lights


The COVID-19 pandemic reminded the world of the threats posed by infectious disease, and the value of medicine as a life-saving resource. Despite tremendous advances in the development of antibiotics in the 20th century, germs like bacteria and fungi continue to develop the ability to defeat these medicines, leaving us vulnerable to deadly disease.

Through a play called The Mold that Changed the World, that story is being told in a uniquely creative way to U.S. audiences. Originally launched at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the musical recounts the life of Sir Alexander Fleming and his world-changing discovery of penicillin in 1928. Through the musical, the audience watches as an older Fleming reflects on his life and accomplishments, including a Nobel Prize and attempt to warn the world of a looming threat: antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the top global health threats, AMR has killed at least 1.27 million people worldwide and was associated with nearly 5 million deaths in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although COVID-19 focused attention on the threats posed by infectious diseases, concerted efforts to raise public and political awareness are needed to tackle the unique challenges of AMR.

With the support of the CDC Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, Charades Theatre Company and the British Government, The Mold that Changed the World is performing in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and may expand to other cities as well. With guidance from UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO), this musical not only champions a public health message, but recruits local scientists and healthcare professionals to perform alongside professional actors in the show’s chorus. One such performer is Ian Hamilton, senior advancement officer at the CDC Foundation.

“I love sharing this story in a creative way that speaks to a wide audience and sparks discussion that will hopefully inspire action to address this critical public health issue,” Ian said. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for everyone to come together to help tackle a major public health crisis. I believe we can apply those same tactics with AMR to ensure sustainable livelihoods within our communities and abroad.”

In addition to direct support to bring the play to the United States, the CDC Foundation is helping spread the play’s crucial message about the fragile future of antibiotics in our society. While theater may at first glance seem an unusual medium for such a message, artists and culture bearers have long been translators of such information and can amplify trusted voices supporting public health education. Most importantly, the power of the arts helps promote understanding of key public health issues and health protection behaviors while fostering partnerships and creative health messages through innovation.

Congratulations to Ian and all the actors for their part in helping spread the message of public health through this unique and entertaining musical.

LSamuel headshot for website
Lily Samuel is a communications officer for the CDC Foundation.