Alexander Fleming and the Discovery of Penicillin

Penicillin is one of the most widely known antibiotics, and with good reason. It has saved millions of lives, including those of countless soldiers injured in battle as well as civilians who contracted dangerous bacteria during times of war. Penicillin was also a key factor in the development of other antibiotic drugs, and it continues to be researched today. In this article, you will learn about the discovery of penicillin by Scottish medical scientist Alexander Fleming and its implications for future research.

Who was Alexander Fleming?

Alexander Fleming was a Scottish biologist and physician, who is often referred to as the "father of antibiotics". He is best known for his discovery of the antibiotic properties of the Penicillium fungus, from which he isolated a pure culture. He was also the co-discoverer of the curative effects of the peptide hormone secretin. Fleming was born in Scotland in 1881 and graduated from the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1906. He became a research assistant at St. Mary's Hospital in London in 1908 and was awarded the MD degree in 1910. Fleming was a pathologist and bacteriologist who made significant contributions to medical science.

How Did Fleming Discover Penicillin?

In 1928, Fleming observed that a few colonies of the Penicillium mould had contaminated a culture of bacteria which he was studying. He discarded the contaminated culture, but a few weeks later, he noticed that the growth of the bacteria in the discarded culture had been inhibited. He discovered that the Penicillium mould had released a substance that kills the bacteria. Fleming coined the term "antibiotic" to describe this substance. Fleming published his findings in 1929, noting that the substance secreted by the Penicillium mould (Penicillin) had given him a "sudden spark of hope" that he had discovered a cure for bacterial infection. It wasn't until three years later, however, that Fleming was able to produce enough of the substance in the lab to prove its effectiveness.

The Initial Failure of Penicillin Research

In the 1930s, scientists at Oxford University worked with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain (two of Fleming's associates) to produce enough penicillin for human trials. However, their early efforts failed and the research was almost abandoned. They discovered, however, that their results were contaminated by impurities in the culture, and that the addition of certain chemicals eliminated these impurities. Finally, in 1941, Florey and Chain were able to produce a pure, usable form of penicillin. Due to the outbreak of World War II, the Oxford group was able to continue their research. Military doctors used penicillin on injured soldiers in the Pacific theatre with success, and Japan's health minister publicly credited penicillin with saving the lives of millions of his countrymen.

Penicillin's Military Value

The Oxford group published its research in 1942, and soon scientists in the US were working on methods of mass-producing penicillin. The US and the UK formed a Tri-Partite Research and Development Agreement to share information and resources, and the US government bought the entire world's supply of penicillin. This ensured that the drug would be available in sufficient quantities for the war effort, and that research and development would continue to be funded. Through this system, the British and American governments were able to produce enough penicillin and other antibiotics to treat wounded soldiers on a massive scale. Penicillin was also used later in the war to protect Allied troops against biological warfare. The US and British militaries sprayed thousands of tons of penicillin and other antibiotics on their equipment and battlefields to prevent infections from anthrax spores and other biological agents that the Japanese and German militaries tried to use as weapons. Penicillin and other antibiotics are still used in this way today.

Why is Penicillin so Important?

Penicillin is important for several reasons. First, it was the first antibiotic ever discovered, and therefore opened the door for an entire new category of drugs. Antibiotics kill dangerous bacteria that cause disease in humans, but they do not harm the human body. Before penicillin, many types of bacterial diseases were almost always fatal. With the advent of antibiotics, these diseases became treatable and curable. Second, penicillin is relatively easy to produce in large quantities, and it is relatively inexpensive. Some other antibiotics are more effective, but they are also much more expensive to produce. Penicillin is therefore the standard against which other antibiotics are compared.

What Happened After the Discovery of Penicillin?

The discovery of penicillin also helped spur other antibiotic research. The Oxford group discovered other antibiotics, such as cephalosporins and aminoglycosides, and research on other antibiotics continues to this day. Other scientists discovered other antibiotics, such as streptomycin, erythromycin, and tetracycline. Yet antibiotics are a double-edged sword, many bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics, making these drugs less effective for treating infections.

Final Words: The Importance of Penicillin

Penicillin has saved millions of lives, but it could save many more if we took greater care to prevent the development of bacterial resistance. The overuse of antibiotics has led to bacterial resistance, and we must be careful to use antibiotics only when they are necessary. If we misuse antibiotics, they will become less effective. Penicillin is one of the most important discoveries in the history of medicine, and it continues to be researched today.