A Brief History of Penicillin

We’ve all heard of penicillin, but do we know where it came from? It is from a group of antibiotics that come from the Penicillium fungi. Sounds horrible, but when it was discovered, it was truly life-saving and revolutionary for medicine. It transformed the medicine and healthcare of the 20th century.

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Discovering penicillin

In 1929, Alexander Fleming, a researcher and doctor at the St Mary’s Hospital in London, returned to his lab after a holiday and found a dirty petri dish with mould having been contaminated by streptococcus. He noticed that the white ring around the mould was killing the contagious bacterium. This was a hugely significant moment.

All of these findings were published, but it would fall to others to further develop uses for this discovery. The birth of penicillin really came about because of the extraordinary circumstances of the Second World War. Thanks to the work of Australian scientist Howard Florey and German biochemist Ernst Chain, the Boots Drug Company were led to conduct further experiments as part of the British war effort.

The Experiments

In May 1940, Florey and Chain carried out an experiment on mice which was a huge success. After this, trials were allowed to take place on humans for the first time. Trials have always been a hugely important part of advances in healthcare. To do your bit for science, why not volunteer for Paid Research Studies with www.trials4us.co.uk ?

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One positive result from the Second World War was the creation of The Therapeutic Research Corporation, which included the British drug companies of Boots, Glaxo Laboratories, British Drug Houses and the Wellcome Foundation. This group was set up to share ideas and discoveries so that not one single drugs company could monopolise the development of specific drugs. This was done as part of the war effort and the focus remained on wartime medicine.

The Boots company, that we still see on the high street today, were the early pioneers of manufacturing penicillin for human consumption. As penicillin was viewed as somewhat of a ‘miracle drug’, it made sense that the company wanted to continue its mass production after the war ended.

Dr. Florey spent much of the rest of his career worrying about the numbers of people penicillin had saved and the resulting population boom that put pressure on the world. Although so many saw penicillin as a monumental success, Florey dedicated much of the rest of career to developing better methods of contraception.


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