Penicillin Works!: May 25, 1940

Two University of Oxford scientists named Howard Florey and Ernst Chain know it’s time to test the drug they’ve been researching. They inoculate eight mice with what ordinarily would be lethal doses of streptococci bacteria, and then give four of the animals shots of the experimental drug. The next day the four not given the drug are dead; the others are perfectly healthy.

The drug is penicillin.

The bacteria-fighting power of mold had actually been discovered—accidentally--by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming 12 years earlier. After returning to his lab from vacation, Fleming noticed that mold had grown in one of his Petri dishes and killed the staph bacteria he had cultivated there.

Fleming, however, was not a chemist and he wasn’t able to isolate whatever was killing the bacteria.  He did publish a paper about his discovery in 1929, but it didn’t generate much interest.

Then a worldwide depression dried up funding for scientific research and wasn’t until 1938 that Chain happened upon Fleming’s paper on penicillin. He began working with his Florey, who was his boss, and two years later they carried out the successful test on mice.

By the following February, they were ready to test penicillin on a human. Florey injected 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 resuled in his head being covered with abscesses so virulent he had to have an eye removed.

The penicillin had an immediate effect. Alexander's temperature dropped back to normal and he was  able to eat again. But the doctors had only a limited supply and, although they were able to prolong the treatment by extracting penicillin from Alexander's urine, they soon ran out. The patient's condition worsened and he died the following month.

But Alexander didn’t die in vain. His initial recovery was proof  that penicillin 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.)

After World War II began, Florey traveled to the U.S. to talk to chemical companies about mass-producing penicillin. They began ramping up in 1943, with the goal of having an adequate supply available by the time the Allies invaded Europe. Production of penicillin in the U.S. jumped from 21 billion units in 1943 to 1,663 billion units in 1944 to 6.8 trillion in 1945.  And the cost dropped dramatically, from $20 per 100,000 units in 1943 to less than 10 cents per 100,000 units in 1949.

For their work on creating the wonder drug of the 20th century, Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945.

More slices of history

Toothpaste in Tubes:  May 22, 1892

The 1st Vaccination: May 14, 1796

"The Pill" Arrives: May 9, 1960

1st U.S. Heart Transplant: May 3, 1968

1st Hit Workout Video: April 24, 1982