University of Oxford

A Short History Of Penicillin

Since the early 1900’s, we have been using a drug called Penicillin to treat bacterial infections in the human body, but something a lot of people don’t know is that it was discovered quite by accident by a Scottish scientist named Sir Alexander Fleming in the year 1928.

In his laboratory in St. Mary’s Hospital in London, he discovered that the mold Penicillium notatum had found its way into a culture dish of Staphylococcus and was inhibiting its growth.

He thought initially that it could be a good disinfectant and noted that it was highly effective, but was minimally toxic. The importance of his discovery was not really known at the time and the use of penicillin did not really begin until the 1940’s.

Howard Florey and three of his colleagues at Oxford University started to research further into penicillin.

The ability that it had to kill infectious bacteria was particularly interesting, but since the country was in the middle of World War II, it was unable to gather the funds necessary to produce mass amounts of the penicillin required for clinical trials and looked to the United States for assistance.

A search worldwide began for the perfect strain of penicillin mold that would produce the largest amount of the mold when it was grown in a vat containing corn steep liquor and strangely, it was not found abroad, but right at home in Peoria in a market next to the lab assisting Oxford with the production of the mold.

By almost the end of 1941, Andrew J. Moyer, a mold nutrition expert, succeeded in multiplying the penicillin production by 10 times and by the year 1943, the clinical trials needed to approve the penicillin doses for public use.

These doses were extremely expensive in the year 1940, but as time went on, they became much less costly, being around $20 a dose in July of 1943, and around fifty cents per dose in 1946.

About four years after penicillin had begun being produced on a large scale in 1943, bacteria and other microbes started resisting it.

Staphylococcus aureus was one of the first to effectively battle penicillin and while it is a normal, mostly harmless inhabitant of the human body, it can cause pneumonia or TSS (toxic shock syndrome, associated with the use of tampons) when it begins to multiply in large numbers. It then begins to produce a toxin and this is what makes the person ill.

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