THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 13, 1941

Penicillin First Used in Human

penicillin-week-in-historyOne of the major advances of twentieth-century medicine was the discovery of penicillin. Penicillin is a member of the class of drugs known as antibiotics. These drugs either kill or arrest (bacteriocidal or bacteriostatic effects, respectively) the growth of bacteria, fungi (yeast), and several other classes of infectious organisms. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Prior to the advent of penicillin, bacterial infections such as pneumonia and sepsis (overwhelming infection of the blood) were usually fatal. Once the use of penicillin became widespread, fatality rates from pneumonia dropped precipitously.

The discovery of penicillin marked the beginning of a new era in fighting disease. Scientists had known since the mid-nineteenth century that bacteria were responsible for some infectious diseases, but were virtually helpless to stop them. Then, in 1928, Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), a Scottish bacteriologist working at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, stumbled onto what proved to be a potent antibacterial agent.

Fleming’s research centered on the bacteria Staphylococcus, a class of bacteria that caused infections such as pneumonia, abscesses, post-operative wound infections, and sepsis. In order to study these bacteria, Fleming grew them in his laboratory in glass Petri dishes on a substance called agar. In August, 1928 he noticed that some of the Petri dishes in which the bacteria were growing had become contaminated with mold, which he later identified as belonging to the Penicillum family.

Fleming noted that bacteria in the vicinity of the mold had died. Exploring further, Fleming found that the mold killed several, but not all, types of bacteria. He also found that an extract from the mold did not damage healthy tissue in animals. However, growing the mold and collecting even tiny amounts of the active ingredient–penicillin–was extremely difficult. Fleming did, however, publish his results in the medical literature in 1928.

Ten years later, other researchers picked up where Fleming had left off. Working in Oxford, England, a team led by Howard Florey (1898-1968), an Australian, and Ernst Chain, a refugee from Nazi Germany, came across Fleming’s study and confirmed his findings in their laboratory. They also had problems growing the mold and found it very difficult to isolate the active ingredient.

Another researcher on their team, Norman Heatley, developed better production techniques, and the team was able to produce enough penicillin to conduct tests in humans. In 1941, the team announced that penicillin could combat disease in humans. Unfortunately, producing penicillin was still a cumbersome process, and supplies of the new drug were extremely limited. Working in the United States, Heatley and other scientists improved production and began making large quantities of the drug. Owing to this success, penicillin was available to treat wounded soldiers by the latter part of World War II. Fleming, Florey, and Chain were awarded the Noble Prize in medicine. Heatley received an honorary M.D. from Oxford University in 1990.

Penicillin. (2007). In B. W. Lerner & K. L. Lerner (Eds.), World of Microbiology and Immunology. Detroit: Gale.


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