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How the Wonder Drug Penicillin was Discovered

Nov 20, 2007
The discovery of penicillin is generally attributed to Dr. Alexander Fleming. While working in his laboratory at St. Marys Hospital in London in 1928 Dr. Fleming conducted research on the pus forming bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. This bacteria was and still is a major cause of infections in wounds and injuries.

The research Dr. Fleming engaged in required growing cultures of Staphylococcus aureus on plates coated with agar. When he examined the plates under a microscope he noticed one of them had accidentally been contaminated by some kind of mold that was killing his Staphylococcus aureus cultures. At first Dr. Fleming did not realize the significance of the mold and was simply annoyed that his hard work had been ruined. Fortunately he did not throw away the plate with the strange mold on it and instead he just set it aside.

Later, Dr. Fleming decided to investigate what went wrong with the contaminated plate. He put a tiny piece of the strange mold in a solution rich in protein and the mold soon began to grow quickly. The mold formed a cluster of blue green cells that when observed under the microscope looked something like a brush. Dr. Fleming was then able to identify the mystery mold as a member of the Penicillium group which is named from the Latin word penicillius which means brush. All of our modern Penicillium mold cultures are derived from this first sample Dr. Fleming had the good judgement to preserve when he realized that something that can kill the dangerous Staphylococcus aureus bacteria is just what we need!

Dr. Fleming proceeded to grow the mold on more plates coated with agar and to test whether or not it had the same effect on other types of bacteria. Although it had no effect on the disease causing germs B. typhosus and B. dysenteria it did rapidly destroy gonococcus which is the cause of the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea.

When mice and rabbits were injected with an extract of the mold they were not sickened or harmed by it. Dr. Fleming was very encouraged by this and added some of the mold extract to a small sample of human blood. When he examined the blood under a microscope he saw that the blood cells were apparently unharmed. This is critical of course where any medicine is concerned. We can kill infectious bacteria sitting in a laboratory dish by simply pouring household bleach on it. But bleach is highly toxic and cannot be ingested or injected into the human body. The real trick is to find a substance that kills the harmful bacteria but does not harm the human body itself.

For the next several years Dr. Fleming tried to interest the scientific and medical community in his blue green but met with a great deal of skepticism. People just did not want to believe that something like a mold could cure diseases. Without the money or resources to further the development of his discovery he could only keep his mold sample alive and wait for people to finally see the potential of it.

When the second world war broke out people became desperate to find new ways to treat all the wounded soldiers and prevent their injuries from becoming infected. Under the impetus of war the research and development of Dr. Flemings Penicillium mold finally got the attention it so richly deserved.

During the second world war Dr. Howard Walter Florey led a team of scientist and technicians at Oxfords Sir William Dunn School of Pathology who finally managed to produce penicillin in sufficient quantities to test it against a wide variety of microbes. In 1940 penicillin was first used to treat a human patient who was a policeman with a blood infection.

Further research told us that penicillin kills bacteria by breaking down their cell walls or by inhibiting their growth. After the war penicillin was hailed as a wonder drug and has since saved countless lives. Even today penicillin continues to serve as an invaluable medicine and its discovery laid the foundation of our modern antibiotic science.
About the Author
Burl Collins is the owner of MSRD Inc and invites you to visit the MSRD Inc Forum and for more information see also Free Article Text and Free Text Articles
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