Discovery Series: Antibiotics are Born

There have been many discoveries with profound effects on mankind as we know it today. Without them, modern society would probably look quite different. In a series of posts, we will be commenting on such discoveries. We wanted to start with the finding and production of antibiotics.
Evolution imposes the challenge of coexistence to many different forms of life. In some cases, peaceful coexistence turns into survival battles. This is the case with numerous microorganisms that constantly invade others. Humans, in an effort that could be defined as intelligent evolution, have used these microorganisms to understand how they invade us and, more importantly, how to prevent and eliminate these unwanted invasions. A huge step forward in the battle between humans and bacteria was the discovery of Penicillin.
Old Penicillin advertisement, from 1940s in South Carolina.
Picture taken from:
The discovery of Penicillin is attributed to Alexander Fleming, a Scottish scientist, although you may find some reports previous to his investigation describing bacterial growth inhibition by molds. The discovery was reportedly an accidental event. In 1928, Fleming returned to his lab after a summer vacation, to find that his Staphylococci culture plates were contaminated with a fungus. The interesting part was that the bacterial colonies that were around the immediate area of the fungus had been destroyed, whereas other colonies farther away were normal.
Original image by Wellcome Images: Stamp issued by the British Royal Mail celebrating the discovery of Penicillin, based on the left image.
However, it was not until the 1940s that mass production was achievable, mostly by the efforts of Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain. The race for mass production was pushed heavily by the military, due to the incredible benefit of the drug in treating war injuries, during World War II.

Nobel laureates for their work on Penicillin, 1945

An ad for penicillin from Schenley Laboratories, Inc. in 1944 during WWII.

"If they can make Penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you..." Muhammad Ali
Today, Penicillin is still widely used, and is effective against many bacterial infections. Since its discovery, the field of antibiotics has grown tremendously. In fact, the misuse of these drugs is posing a delicate modern medical challenge, in the form of antibiotic resistance, but that is another topic that we could discuss in a future post. As for this one, we thank Dr. Fleming for his discovery, as well as all the people involved in bringing the "mold juice" into our hospitals.

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