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The Discovery of Penicillin, circa 1928

By Cristina Luiggi The Discovery of Penicillin, circa 1928 It was the wonder drug of the 20th century: A yellow liquid that seeps from the spores of the Penicillium fungal mold and contains a compound that shatters the cell walls of bacteria responsible for common diseases such as pneumonia, strep throat, scarlet fever, syphilis, and meningitis. With steep reductions in human mortality rates and drastic improvements in quality of life, penicillin may very well be one of

By | September 1, 2010

The Discovery of Penicillin, circa 1928

It was the wonder drug of the 20th century: A yellow liquid that seeps from the spores of the Penicillium fungal mold and contains a compound that shatters the cell walls of bacteria responsible for common diseases such as pneumonia, strep throat, scarlet fever, syphilis, and meningitis. With steep reductions in human mortality rates and drastic improvements in quality of life, penicillin may very well be one of mankind’s greatest discoveries.

© True Comics
Scottish doctor Alexander Fleming observed the mold killing his Staphylococcus cultures in late 1928 while working at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. But by the start of World War II, no one had figured out how to efficiently extract the active ingredient from Penicillium, whose concentration “is almost the same as gold in sea water,” says Robert Bud, Principal Curator of Medicine at The Science Museum in London and author of Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy.
It wasn’t until the end of 1940 that doctors at Oxford University had collected enough penicillin to treat one person: a policeman who got blood poisoning from a small scratch on his face. Unfortunately, his intravenous treatment of penicillin used up the entire stock of the drug. Doctors tried recycling penicillin from his urine to continue his treatment, Bud says, but with barely one hundredth of a gram of antibiotic per gallon of urine, it simply wasn’t enough. The man died shortly after the penicillin ran out.

© True Comics
In 1942, the Russians held the record for treating the most patients with the drug, Bud says, scraping the Penicillium off the walls of damp air raid shelters and rubbing the fungal juice directly onto affected areas. Two years later, researchers finally succeeded in mass-producing the antibiotic by growing a mutant Penicillium strain in corn starch liquor in large metal tanks—just in time to aid the thousands of soldiers who would be wounded on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
The wonder drug has lost some of its killer properties in the decades following its initial widespread use, with hospitals reporting penicillin-resistant infections as early as the mid-1940s. A new antibiotic called methicillin initially served as a good alternative, but bacteria have since evolved ways to circumvent methicillin’s deadly grip as well. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was responsible for around 20,000 deaths in the United States in 2005.
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Comments

Avatar of: Brendon Coventry

Brendon Coventry

Posts: 3

September 24, 2010

The article skims over the fact that Fleming did not go on to do anything with his finding, in fact, it was left to Howard Florey and Ernst Chain (non-British) many years later to realise what it meant and to develop the chance finding into a true discovery. This was not supported by the British Government and funding was so poor that the project nearly folded several times, were it not for Florey's unyielding tenacity, and finally an American philanthropic group donated $200 to permit development to proceed to the point where it could prosper. The war effort finally brought funds that moved this on further, and the rest is history. I note the real heroes Florey and Chain are not mentioned in this little article - nor their unyielding quest for scientific discovery and clinical success - an all too often omission in records of discoveries! Without these people Penicillin would never have been then, for the war effort, and possibly to date! These points are all well recorded in history - if you look!\n\n
Avatar of: Miguel Vicente

Miguel Vicente

Posts: 2

September 27, 2010

Is this all that there is to this post? It seems a rather incomplete and superficial account of well known facts. Which is the purpose of the comics?
Avatar of: Peter Bradley

Peter Bradley

Posts: 1

September 27, 2010

Is this a case of British revisionist history? Fleming (the Brit) glorified for a chance observation and the people who did the hard work - Floey and Chain consigned to the dustbin of history.
Avatar of: Mark Cannell

Mark Cannell

Posts: 15

September 27, 2010

Yikes, even Wikipedia has a better account than this. Apart form Chain and Florey, let's not forget Norman Heatley.
Avatar of: KEITH SEIFERT

KEITH SEIFERT

Posts: 2

September 27, 2010

There are lots of stories, and many of them are in the book by Eric Lax, The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat. Definitely worth a read.
Avatar of: STEPHEN BARNES

STEPHEN BARNES

Posts: 1

September 27, 2010

This article overly simplifies the origins of the discovery of penicillin. Some think that the first systematic discoverer of penicillin was a Frenchman, Eric Duchesne. He submitted a thesis in 1896 about the effects of a green mould on bacterial growth. J. W. Henderson has written an article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (72: 683-687, 1997) on the history of the discovery of penicillin that puts Fleming's role into perspective. However, it's possible that the real discoverers of the effect of penicillin mould on bacterial growth are much more ancient than even Duchesne. Many non-Western societies have long been aware of the value of plants and microorganisms for use as medicines.
Avatar of: Paul Browne

Paul Browne

Posts: 11

September 28, 2010

I have to agree with earlier comments, Fleming was a great scientist, but was also something of a self-publicist who was lucky on several occasions. This didn't only apply to his discovery of penicillin, he was very fortunate that the first patient he treated didn't suffer serious neurological side effects as a consequence.\n\nhttp://speakingofresearch.com/extremism-undone/bad-science/#1\n\nFlorey, Chain, and Heatley should get more credit for their role in developing Penicillin, a role that depended less on luck than on sheer hard graft and innovative science. In particular it is a shame that the Nobel Prize can only be awarded to 3 individuals in one year, as Norman Heatley really did deserve to receive it for his ingenuity in overcoming many of the problems in purifying penicillin.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

September 28, 2010

Oh the British mythology of Fleming continues
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

September 29, 2010

Before the Europeans invaded the American continent the indians of Mexico had antibiotics based in fungi growth in bolls of corn mass. Pieces of those bolls were eaten and had effects on infections.
Avatar of: Ting Wang

Ting Wang

Posts: 15

September 29, 2010

But science did not omit the work Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, they were also Nobel laureates.

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