Penicillin: The Wonder Drug

Penicillin was the first medicinal antibiotic and proved to be an effective treatment against many diseases that are today considered relatively minor, but were potentially deadly prior to its use.

Penicillin is derived from Penicillium moulds. The effects of these moulds were isolated in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming. Fleming noticed an open Petri dish containing a culture of Staphylococci bacteria had been contaminated by a blue-green mould. He observed a halo of inhibited bacterial growth around the edge of the mould. Fleming concluded that the mould released a substance that repressed the growth of the bacteria. He grew a pure culture of the Penicillium and coined the term “penicillin” to describe the filtrate of a broth culture he distilled. 

Alexander Fleming
Alexander Fleming
Howard Florey, 1945

In 1940, Australian scientist Howard Florey (later Baron Florey) and a team of researchers (Ernst Boris Chain, Edward Abraham, Arthur Duncan Gardner, Norman Heatley, Margaret Jennings, J. Orr-Ewing and G. Sanders) at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford made progress in showing the antibiotic action of penicillin in living organisms.

By late 1940, the Oxford team had devised a method of mass-producing the drug in small quantities. In 1941, Florey and Heatley travelled to the US to find a pharmaceutical company to mass produce the drug. 

On March 14, 1942, the first patient was treated for streptococcal sepsis with US-made penicillin produced by Merck & Co. Since then Penicillin has saved millions of lives. In 1945, Fleming, Florey and Chaim won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discovery and development of Penicillin.

During the Second World War Penicillin was considered one of the contributing factors to the Allied victory. After the war, the drug became widely available to the public and was used to treat previously fatal conditions, such as Syphilis. Penicillin arguably turned the tide against many common causes of illness and death and allowed for a whole new discipline of infection control and mitigation.

The development of penicillin led to the discovery of a number of other of antibiotics, most of which are still used today. It also opened the door to the development of other modern medical practices, including organ transplants and skin grafts, which otherwise may not have been possible.

Unfortunately, decades of the wide use of antibiotics in both medicine and agriculture has led to a situation where bacteria are developing resistance to many common treatments: for example, For example, Staphylococcus aureus (‘golden staph’ or MRSA) and Neisseria gonorrhoeal (the cause of gonorrhoea), which in the past, were usually easily controlled, are now almost always resistant to benzyl penicillin.

Many health departments recommend action to prevent antibiotic resistance including for doctors to minimise unnecessary prescribing and overprescribing of antibiotics. This occurs when people expect doctors to prescribe antibiotics for a viral illness (antibiotics do not work against viruses) or when antibiotics are prescribed for conditions that do not require them. For people prescribed antibiotics to complete the entire course so that it can be fully effective and not breed resistance, and for all of us to practise good hygiene, such as hand-washing, and use appropriate infection control procedures at all times to minimise the spread of pathogens throughout the community.