The History Of Penicillin

Learn about the history of penicillin and how it is used in medicine today.

Prior to the 20th century, the hospital mortality rate was greatly increased by the infection of operating wounds. Bacteria entering the wound at the point of incision would poison the blood stream, usually leading to a fatality. The problem, when it was pin-pointed, was partially remedied by more hygienic surgical practices and antiseptics that would attack bacteria outside of the body. What was really needed, however, was an antiseptic that could be taken internally and then destroy bacteria that had invaded the body. As the 20th century dawned, though, such a breakthrough seemed a long way off.

It was the desire to find such an internal antiseptic that drove Scottish born doctor Alexander Fleming in his pioneering work in London in the 1920's. In 1922 Fleming made the amazing observation that the human teardrop contained a chemical capable of destroying bacteria - and at an alarming rate. However, the excitement at this discovery was soon dashed. While the new discovery - which Fleming called lysozyme - was effective at dissolving harmless microbes it proved ineffective at negating those that caused disease.

Fleming, however, did not give up. In 1928 his diligence was rewarded. In his laboratory Fleming was in the process of developing stapholycocci. Removing the lid from one of these cultures, Fleming was surprised to see that around the mould, the colonies of stapholycocci had been dissolved. Something produced by the mould was dissolving the bacteria. That something was penicillin.

After further testing, Fleming was able to isolate the juice of the mould and it was then that he named it penicillin. This new breakthrough destroyed such nasties as gonorrhea, meningitis, diptheria and pneumonia bacteria. Best of all, it was not poisonous to humans. The medical community reacted coldly to this new discovery, however. They were adamant that once a bacteria entered the body, there was nothing that could be done. Penicillin was seen by them as a non-event.

The overwhelming casualties on the battlefield during the 2nd World War led two medical researchers, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, to look at resurrecting Fleming's work with penicillin. After much refinement they were able to develop a powdered form of penicillin. In 1941 the first human was successfully treated. Before long, penicillin was in full production. Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945.

Penicillin has an amazing strength in destroying many of the bacteria that have plagued mankind for thousands of years. However, some people have a negative reaction to penicillin, with shock and even death resulting. Neither is penicillin a cure-all. There are many common ailments that it does not affect. Despite this, penicillin has saved countless lives since that day in 1928 when Alexander Fleming stumbled upon it in his staphylococci culture.

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