Penicillin


No other drug has had a greater impact on the world than the discovery of penicillin in 1928. Penicillin and other antibiotics that followed made curable bacterial infections that killed people 70 years ago. While Alexander Fleming is credited with penicillin’s discovery, many people contributed to the work of making penicillin the wonder drug it has come to be knows as.


In 1928 Fleming was doing research on staphylococci. During his research one of his cultures was contaminated with airborne mold particles. Fleming left on vacation for a month and upon his return noticed the contaminated culture. He noticed a clear area around the mold that prevented the bacteria from growing. He realized that the mold must have been producing a substance that inhibits the growth of the bacteria. Fleming isolated the substance and named in penicillin. Fleming was unable to produce concentrated amounts on penicillin and was unsure of its therapeutic value. Fleming published a paper on his discovery but it did not receive much notice until 1939.


In 1939 a team of scientists from Oxford University, lead by Howard Florey, was doing research on substances that that could kill bacteria. Florey began testing penicillin. Fifty white laboratory mice were injected with Streptococcus. Half the mice were also injected with penicillin. The mice injected with penicillin survived while those that were not died. Successful testing was soon done on humans.


The first human tested by Florey’s lab was a police officer that had nicked himself shaving. It was a minor cut, but was ignored and became infected. When doctors were unsuccessful in treating the officer, Florey was given permission to treat the officer using penicillin. After five days the officer was improving but because of limited supplies of penicillin the officer relapsed and soon died. Although the officer died, the penicillin had temporarily stopped the infection and was not harmful


By 1941 the value of penicillin in treating bacterial infections was recognized but methods of production weren’t producing enough to make it useful for large scale use. With war in Europe research was moved to the United States, where search was begun to find mold that were more productive at making penicillin. One was found on a moldy cantaloupe in Peoria Illinois that produced two hundred times more penicillin that Flemings original culture. Radiation was than used to increase the output to one thousand times more penicillin that Fleming’s original culture.


Developments in the methods of growth further increased the production of Penicillin. Mold was firs frown in large flasks because the mold required air to grow. New methods were developed that involve the aeration of twenty five thousand gallon tanks. By aerating mixtures mold was able to grow through out the mixture not just on the surface. By the end of World War 2 enough penicillin was being produced to treat 7 million patients a year.


Thanks to the efforts of Fleming and others countless lives have been saved.