First penicillin shot: Feb. 12, 1941
Although the bacteria-fighting power of mold had been accidentally discovered by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming 13 years earlier, it wasn’t until 1940 that a team of doctors at Oxford University began successfully testing a new drug called penicillin on mice. By early 1941, they were ready to try it on a human.
On February 12, 1941, Dr. Howard Florey, the head of the team, injects penicillin into a 43-year-old policeman named Albert Alexander. A few months earlier, Alexander had scratched his face with a thorn from a rose and it had developed into a horrific infection and blood poisoning that covered his head with abscesses so virulent that he had to have an eye removed.
The penicillin has an immediate effect. Alexander’s temperature drops back to normal and he is able to eat again. But the doctors have only a limited supply and, although they are able to prolong the treatment by extracting penicillin from Alexander’s urine, they soon run out. The patient’s condition worsens and on March 14 he dies.
But he didn’t die in vain. His initial recovery was proof that penicillin actually worked in humans. Florey and his team decided to use it only on sick children who did not need such large amounts of penicillin until their methods of production improved. (They’d been growing mold as quickly as they could in every receptacle they could find–bathtubs, bed pans, pie dishes, and even food trays, before finally settling on ceramic jars.)
Of the next five patients treated with penicillin, four recovered from their infections. The one who died, a young child, was actually cured of an infection, but died of a brain hemorrhage. By the time Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy three years later, they were equipped with ample supplies of penicillin, which saved countless lives.
More slices of history