Infections have been a bane for humanity throughout the entire history. Before the advent of antibiotics, a simple cut or wound was potentially fatal, this goes without saying that any form of surgery was indeed risky. It was common for mothers and children to die from postnatal infections following the childbirth.
In the 1800s, one fourth of all deaths were caused a single bacterium (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). This figure however decreased dramatically by the 1900s, but still there was no cure to tuberculosis. The only treatment available was a trip to countryside to fetch some fresh air. The mortality rate in the 1920s was about double the rates today.
Nonetheless, all this changed dramatically after 1928 because of the ground-breaking work of Sir Alexander Fleming and that of Sir Ernst Boris Chain, Sir Howard Florey and Norman Heatley after him.
In 1928, a bacteriologist named as Alexander Fleming was working in the St. Mary’s Hospital in the inoculation department. He has just returned from his summer vacation in Scotland and was shocked to find his lab bench in a mess. There was also a Staphylococcus culture plate that had been contaminated with a mould. His initial thoughts were that this was nothing more than a spoiled experiment, but on closer inspection, he noticed something surprising. No bacteria were growing near to the mould and this way mould had created a bacteria-free circle around itself.
He performed further tests and discovered that the mould, also known as Penicillium notatum was somehow inhibiting the growth of bacteria, including some of the most dangerous pathogenic bacteria. He has written about this discovery:
“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”
He didn’t stop here and went on to perform a series of experiments with this mould and named the substance as ‘penicillin’ which was produced by the mould. He was never able to extract this ‘penicillin’ from the mould and finally in 1931, he ceased his work on it.
Fortunately, this story doesn’t end here. Some 10 years later, two researchers Sir Howard Florey and Sir Ernst Boris Chain of the University of Oxford unearthed Fleming’s papers for their research project. They decided to solve the chemical problems of purification and extraction that Fleming was unable to do. They were successful in doing so with the help of a young biochemist, Norman Heatley. They has won the battle which Fleming left, but still the quantities which they were able to extract were not satisfactory. It took over 2,000 litres of mould culture to obtain enough penicillin to treat a single case of sepsis in a person.
This problem of mass production was solved by a bacteriologist working about 4,000 miles away, at the laboratory in Peoria, Illinois. He used a different mould from the Penicillium family called Penicillium Chrysogenum to extract penicillin and found that this strain generated 1000 times more penicillin as compared to Penicillium notatum. This was the final piece of puzzle after which mass production of penicillin was possible. For this discovery, the 1945 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey.
This discovery changed the world of medicine enormously. The infections that were previously fatal were now easily treated. The impact could be assessed by the fact that during the World War II, for the first time in history, infection was not the cause of major deaths. By the end of the war, penicillin was mass produced in several labs and was saving thousands of lives every day around the globe.