Penicillin: The Importance Of Its Discovery
There have been many advancements in the field of chemistry in the past 100 years; the Haber-Bosch process, the contraceptive pill, polythene and liquid crystal displays. However, I believe that the most groundbreaking advancement was the discovery and development of penicillin, one of the first antibiotic drugs that are effective on multiple types of infections.
The discovery of this antibacterial drug was accidentally made by Sir Alexander Fleming, a bacteriologist at St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1928, Fleming returned from a two week holiday to find that one of the petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus, a bacteria that can cause a variety of ailments such as boils and sore throats, was acting strangely. The petri dish was full of the bacteria, except for the area around a small piece of mould. The species of mould was from the penicillium genus and was killing the bacteria. Fleming later discovered that this species of mould could also kill many other types of gram-positive bacteria, such as meningococcus and the diphtheria bacillus. Fleming soon found that he would be unable to continue his research as he lacked the equipment and funds that he required.
In the late 1930s, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey, two Oxford scientists began to attempt to isolate the antibacterial compound with a specialised team. After success in an experiment where mice were cured of a type of Streptococcus, the Oxford team published their findings in The Lancet, in August 1940. They described the production, purification and experimental use of penicillin, which was able to protect animals that were infected with, ‘Streptococcus pyogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium septique’, all gram-positive types of bacteria.
After having purified enough penicillin, the team then began to test its clinical effectiveness on humans. In February 1941, the first person to be treated with penicillin had a clear improvement in their condition caused by a serious infection in the following 24 hours. Unfortunately, they had very little penicillin and it ran out quickly, the man died a few weeks later of his infection. More tests took place and all other human subjects saw an improvement in their condition and survived as they were able to finish their treatment. The team then published their findings, and demand for the drug rose quickly.
Penicillin was incredibly difficult to mass-produce in Great Britain at the time due to World War Two and the lack of supplies that they could afford, so they turned to colleagues in America. In 1941, the USA joined the war effort and the American government gave $80,000,000 to fund research such as the development of penicillin. By 1943, penicillin was being mass-produced as it is today. Penicillin’s amazing effects led to Fleming, Chain and Florey winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1945.
In conclusion, without penicillin, it is unlikely that the techniques similar to those used to discover and produce penicillin would have been used, and researchers never would have discovered many other antibiotics in the following years such as streptomycin, erythromycin, vancomycin and chloramphenicol. Many thousands of lives have been saved by the discovery of penicillin and the antibiotics that followed its discovery.