When Were Antibiotics Invented?

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In 1928, Alexander Fleming, who was a bacteriologist at London’s St. Mary's Hospital, and found mold on a discarded antibacterial solution. At first he didn't realize what he discovered but in essence it was the discoveration of penicillin. 

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The idea of using antibiotics (substances that kill bacteria, that is, germs) originated in the late nineteenth century. In 1943 American microbiologist Selman A. Waksman (1888–1973) discovered a fungus that produced a powerful antibiotic substance. He named it streptomycin. This original antibiotic, which was produced in quantity in 1944, helped in treating such lethal diseases as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, bubonic plague, and bacterial meningitis. Although streptomycin saved numerous lives, it was eventually found to be unsafe and removed from the market in favor of newer, safer antibiotics, such as sulfa drugs and penicillin.

The first safe antibiotics were invented in 1945 by British scientists Howard Florey (1898–1968) and Ernst Boris Chain (1906–1979), who expanded the penicillin research of Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming (1881–1955). Florey and Chain determined that penicillin could be safely used to kill disease-causing bacteria in humans. Since World War II (1939–45) was raging in England, they took their work to the United States, to a laboratory in Peoria, Illinois. With the help of Robert D. Coghill and others, Florey and Chain were able to grow large quantities of penicillin and search for more powerful strains of the mold. When a Peoria woman, nicknamed Moldy Mary, came to the laboratory with a rotten cantaloupe, it proved to be the source of the strongest penicillin to date. Soon many chemical companies were making the penicillin that would save millions of lives. For the creation of this life-saving drug, still used widely today, Fleming, Florey, and Chain won the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology in 1945.

Further Information: Curtis, Robert H. Great Lives: Medicine. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993, pp. 77–90; Lienhard, John H. "Florey and Penicillin." Engines of Our Imagination. [Online] Available http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1015.html, November 6, 2000; "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1945." Nobel e-Museum. [Online] Available http://www.nobel.se/medicine/laureates/1945/, November 6, 2000.

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