Penicillin Discovery: The Story of the World’s First Antibiotic

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

Antibiotics like penicillin are a crucial component of modern medicine, helping to combat infections and save countless lives. However, the first antibiotic discovery was accidental and happened more than 90 years ago.

Before discovering antibiotics, people lived in a world where a simple cut could turn deadly, where childbirth was a gamble with life, and where infections raged unchecked. This was the reality before 1928, when a chance encounter with mould in a London laboratory led to the discovery of penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic. This is the story of that remarkable discovery and its profound impact on human health.

The Accidental Observation

The story behind the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, is a fascinating one. In 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming was working in his laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, England. He was studying staphylococci bacteria, which caused serious infections in wounds and other areas of the body.

One day upon returning from vacation in Suffolk, he noticed that one of his petri dishes containing staphylococci had become contaminated with mould. Instead of throwing it away, his keen eye noticed something extraordinary. The mould, later identified as Penicillium notatum, had created a clear zone around itself where the bacteria couldn’t grow. This sparked his curiosity. He observed that the bacteria around the mould had been destroyed, while the bacteria further away remained unaffected.

Fleming identified the mould as Penicillium and began to study its properties. He found that it produced a substance that was effective against a wide range of bacteria, including those that caused pneumonia and meningitis. However, Fleming was unable to isolate and purify the active ingredient, and his work on penicillin was largely forgotten.

It’s worth mentioning that Fleming wasn’t the first to observe mould’s effects on bacteria. But he was the first to pursue its potential as a medicine. He named the mould’s active ingredient “penicillin” and documented its ability to kill certain bacteria. However, purifying and producing penicillin in large quantities proved a significant challenge.

The Long Road to Wonder Drug

It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that Fleming published his findings in 1929, it took almost a decade for the compound to be isolated as a therapeutic agent. Fleming struggled to purify the compound from the extract due to its instability, lack of funding, and the fact that he was a bacteriologist, not a chemist. In the meantime, he sent his Penicillium mould to anyone who requested it in hopes that they might be able to find a way to use it clinically.

It was not until the 1930s that penicillin was rediscovered and developed into a powerful antibiotic. Researchers Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at the University of Oxford in England recognised the potential of penicillin and began to work on isolating and purifying the active ingredient. They were eventually able to produce a pure form of penicillin, which they tested on animals and humans with great success.

The team, which is now composed of three gentlemen was then ready for their first experiment. These are:

  • Heatley, a fungal expert who grew the mould.
  • Chain, a biochemist who extracted penicillin from the broth.
  • Florey supervised animal trials and maintained peace within the group since Heatley and Chain used to disagree a lot.

On May 25th, 1939, Dr. Heatley and his team injected eight mice with a powerful strain of streptococcus bacteria. They then separated the mice into two groups of four. One group received injections of penicillin, the new medicine they were testing, while the other group received no treatment and served as controls.

Dr Heatley stayed with the mice throughout the night, monitoring their conditions closely. By 4:00 am, a heartbreaking sight met him. All four mice in the control group, who hadn’t received penicillin, had succumbed to the infection. However, there was hope! All four mice who had received penicillin injections were still alive and seemed to be recovering.

This remarkable outcome provided Dr. Heatley and his team with the first clear evidence of penicillin’s effectiveness against streptococcal infections, paving the way for its development into a life-saving antibiotic.

Later on, many other scientists of different backgrounds joined this team to be called then the “Oxford team”. Fleming, who was eager to see penicillin concentrated and purified for clinical use, was surprised to hear about the astonishing results of the studies done by the team at Oxford. he even came in touch with them, and they happily shared their findings with him when he visited their laboratory. While he stayed in contact with Florey and Chain, it was the Oxford group that did all the work to transform penicillin into a practical therapeutic agent.

In February 1941, the team administered the purified penicillin to the first human patient, an Oxford policeman suffering from a severe infection with abscesses all over his body. The results were nothing short of miraculous: within 24 hours of receiving the drug, the patient’s condition had improved dramatically. However, the supply of penicillin was extremely limited at the time, and the policeman was unable to receive a full course of treatment. He died a few days later, despite the initial improvement in his health.

Despite this setback, the team continued their clinical trials with penicillin and successfully treated other patients with the drug. Their work ultimately paved the way for the mass production of penicillin and other antibiotics. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies in Great Britain at that time were unable to produce penicillin on a large scale due to their commitments during World War II. As a result, Florey sought help from the United States.

World War II and the Penicillin Boom

In June 1941, Florey and Heatley travelled to the United States to meet with American scientists and find pharmaceutical companies that could help with the mass production of their drug. To ensure the safety of the precious Penicillium mould they had with them while travelling, Heatley came up with the idea of smearing their coats with the Penicillium strain instead of carrying it in a vial that could be stolen.

Their plan went smoothly, and they managed to convince many pharmaceutical companies to produce penicillin for clinical use on a large scale. At first, the United States didn’t have enough penicillin to help anyone, but by the end of 1942, they had enough for less than 100 people. However, by September 1943, they had enough of it to help all the Allied Armed Forces.

When the United States joined the war on December 7, 1941, penicillin production increased significantly. Researchers found ways to produce large amounts of the drug, and the government took over the distribution of all penicillin to ensure it was available for war needs and for the most critical civilian needs.

The urgency of World War II became a turning point. Infected soldiers desperately needed treatment, and penicillin’s potential was undeniable. With government support and collaboration across disciplines, the production of penicillin skyrocketed. By 1944, it was saving countless lives on the battlefield, earning it the nickname “the wonder drug.”

Penicillin was first used to treat Allied soldiers during World War II and quickly became a vital tool in the fight against infections. It was mass-produced and distributed around the world, saving countless lives and transforming medicine.

It’s worth mentioning here that the process of penicillin production wasn’t that easy since Great Britain and other European countries worked hard to keep it secret and prevent the Germans from obtaining the mould that produced penicillin. It’s a rather long yet interesting story that’s beyond the scope of this article but worth knowing. To learn more about how the British government and other European countries kept this secret from falling into their enemy hands, check out this article.

A Legacy of Life-Saving Power

The discovery of the first antibiotic revolutionised medicine. It paved the way for the development of other antibiotics, leading to a dramatic decline in deaths from infectious diseases. That’s why Fleming was awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology together with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain. Today, antibiotics are essential tools in fighting infections, saving millions of lives each year.

The discovery of penicillin was a game-changer in the field of medicine, and it all began with a chance observation in a laboratory. Today, antibiotics are a cornerstone of modern medicine, but it is important to remember their humble beginnings and the incredible story behind their discovery.

This is just a glimpse into the fascinating story of the first antibiotic discovery. There’s much more to explore, from the ongoing fight against antibiotic resistance to the development of new antimicrobial strategies. So, keep delving deeper into this remarkable medical marvel and its lasting impact on our lives!

If you enjoy learning about the history of drug discoveries, then the story behind insulin discovery is as interesting as the one for penicillin; don’t miss it.


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