Technological Breakthrough — Antibiotics

The development of antibiotics is one of the greatest feats in human history. The era of modern antibiotics began with the discovery and production of penicillin.

Photo by Tran Nguyen

Antibiotics in nature are molecular compounds produced by bacteria and fungi. Microorganisms use these compounds to inhibit the growth of microbes, allowing them to monopolize space, nutrients and other resources.

The discovery of penicillin occurred in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. Fleming found that bacterial strain Penicillium notatum produced and excreted a compound which inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus spp — cause of boils, abscesses and sore throats. Fleming further discovered that this compound was capable of killing other harmful bacteria. Fleming did not personally produce penicillin as a drug, as he and his colleagues failed to isolate pure penicillin.

It wasn’t until the times of war that the production of therapeutic penicillin began. In 1939, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and their colleagues at Oxford university began to isolate and purify penicillin for animal experiments and clinical trials. The purification process involved processing of large amounts of mold filtrates and allowing fermentation to occur.

Photo by FBRadmin

The effectiveness of penicillin was first demonstrated by Florey on mice, in 1940. Florey demonstrated that penicillin was capable of protecting mice from deadly Streptococci infection. The first human recipient of penicillin produced by Florey and colleagues was Albert Alexander in 1941. Alexander had an infection with huge abscesses affecting his face, eyes and lungs, which threatened his life. Intake of penicillin caused him to recover within days, however died due to supply of penicillin running out. The drug was made available for British troops on the battlefield however, war-time conditions hindered industrial production.

Florey and Norman Heatly went to the US in 1941 to see if the American pharmaceutical industry was interested in large-scale production of penicillin. Some companies including Pfizer, Merck, Lederle, Abbott and Squibb greatly contributed to the mass production of penicillin. From World War II and thereafter, advancements in technologies to produce penicillin caused the production of the drug to greatly increase year by year.

Penicillin is recognized as one of the greatest advances in the field of medicine. This success is due to the drug being first of its kind. There were no effective treatments for many life threatening infections before the introduction of the drug. It was also produced during WWII therefore its usefulness was immediately valued on the battlefield to treat and prevent infections.


For those interested, this is a short documentary on penicillin discovery. Some scenes may cause discomfort.