The discovery of antibioticsScience 

The discovery of antibiotics

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Few are the people who can raise their hand and say they haven’t used antibiotics at least once in their lives. The lifesaving drugs that transformed medicine and improved our quality of life has only been around for less than a century, and is considered to be one of the major breakthroughs in human history – one that came by accidently.

In a rather fitting way that describes many of man’s accomplishments and discoveries over the course of our time on Earth, we stumbled upon antibiotics in a rather unceremonious way. The story goes that Professor Alexander Fleming, a Scottish scientist who had been investigating the properties of staphylococci, discovered the world’s first antibiotic whilst cleaning up his laboratory. Fleming happened on a petri dish containing a culture contaminated by fungus that had destroyed the staphylococci within.

Professor Alexander Fleming; in his laboratory at St Mary's,
Professor Alexander Fleming; in his laboratory at St Mary’s, Paddington, London. source media.iwm.org.uk; collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Intrigued by the reaction caused by what he called “mould juice”, Professor Fleming inspected the fungus and soon found out it was able to kill other types of disease-causing bacteria such as scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis and diphtheria. Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin, coining the term and famously saying of it:

“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”

However, after publishing his findings in 1929 to a very uninterested medical field, the Scottish scientist continued to learn more about penicillin, but failed to refine it, eventually giving up on additional research. It would take another decade before other scientists managed to find a way to mass produce it, with Oxford University’s Howard Floret and Ernst Boris Chain claiming that distinction.

From then on, researchers and scientists toiled over the newfound antibiotic to figure out its abilities, limitations and possible applications. “The Wonder Drug” as it was called, performed miracles during the Second World War, notably treating all the bacterial infections that broke out and occurred throughout Allied troops after D-Day.

After its successful application in the field, antibiotics became a new staple of modern medicine that was able to cure ailments that were once considered to be lethal and untreatable. For their hard work, research and role in its’ medical breakthrough, Fleming, Florey and Chain all received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 – effectively marking the beginning of the era of the antibiotics.

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