You’ll have heard of penicillin unless you’ve been in a cave for the past 100 years – in fact, you’ll probably have been given some or a derivative thereof at some point in your life. But how was it discovered, and how is it relevant to the Medicine Through Time course? Well, you’re going to find out here…

When you hear of penicillin, you probably think of Alexander Fleming as the one who discovered it, right? Well, he wasn’t the first to discover it – that was in fact John Sanderson, in the early 19th century. However, he did nothing with it, and it was until Joseph Lister, in the 1880s, who successfully used it to treat an infected wound on a young nurse. However, he wrote down nothing of it, and stopped using it. Other scientists investigated it but couldn’t produce enough.

Here is where Fleming comes in. In 1928, Alexander Fleming rediscovered the properties of penicillin, in St Mary’s Hospital, London. The only reason he discovered penicillin was because he did not clean up after himself – effectively, by being a sloppy scientist, he unwittingly discovered one of the greatest discoveries of modern times (as Pasteur would argue, chance favours the prepared mind). He observed that no bacteria grew near the mould, which was the fungus¬†penicillium notatum, so he named the antibiotic¬†penicillin.

Fleming then wrote about penicillin in 1929, but it wasn’t really noticed until 1937, when Howard Florey and Ernst Chain became interested in his work – researching to ensure its effect in killing bacteria. first they tested it on mice, and then eventually on humans. However, the government wouldn’t fund them to mass produce it because all factories were being used to make weapons and ammunition for WWII at the time.

Eventually, Florey approached the American government, and in 1942, because the USA had entered the war (as a result of the Pearl Harbour bombings, if that’s any interest), the US government gave $80 million to drug companies to mass produce penicillin. By D-Day in June 1944, there was enough penicillin to treat all of the casualties by then – and soon after the war penicillin became available for civilian use as an antibiotic, to treat infections – Fleming, Florey and Chain all received a joint Nobel prize for their work on penicillin.


There are many factors behind the development of penicillin – Individuals such as Florey, Chain and Fleming, Communications allowing Florey and Chain to learn of penicillin, Government investing in penicillin production, War giving it more relevance and therefore more priority, Technology required to find and mass-produce penicillin, and finally chance for Fleming’s original discovery – in fact, this is nearly all of the factors, so this is a major event in the Medicine Through Time course – make sure you know the story.


And that’s it for the development of penicillin! If you have any questions, post a comment. Hopefully this helped!

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