Stage 1: A False Start
There are many examples in medicine of false starts, and penicillin is one of them. In 1872 a doctor called Joseph Lister noticed that mould of bacteria penicillin killed other bacteria. Years later, in 1884, he used this mould to treat a nurse who had an infected wound. But Lister did not use it again. A miracle cure lay waiting for someone else to rediscover it
Antibiotic: A drug made from Bacteria that kill other bacteria and so cure an infection or illness.
Stage 2: 1928-Fleming's discovery of Penicillin-an
During the First World War a scientist called Alexander Fleming was sent to France to study soldiers' wounds infected with streptococci and staphylococci bacteria. These wounds were not healed by chemical antiseptics, and many soldiers died from them. Back home Fleming worked on a way of dealing with those bacteria.
Ten years later, in 1928, Fleming found what he'd been seeking. He was working at St Mary's Hospital, London. Going on holiday he left a pile of Petri dishes containing bacteria on his laboratory bench. On his return he sorted out the dishes and noticed mould on one of them. Around the mould the staphylococci bacteria had disappeared.
Fleming carried out experiments with the penicillin mould on living cells. He discovered that if it was diluted it killed bacteria without harming the cells. He made a list of the germs it killed and used it to treat another scientist's eye infection. However, it did not seem to work on deeper infections and in any case it was taking ages to create enough penicillin to use. In 1929, Fleming wrote about penicillin in a medical journal but nobody thought his article was important. He had not used penicillin on animals to heal infections so had no evidence of it being useful.
Stage 3: Florey and Chain part 1
in 1938 F&C were researching how germs could be killed. They read Fleming's article on penicillin and realised that it could be very effective so they tried to get funding from the government. They got £25. With a war about to start and no proof penicillin could help people, the government had other things to spend its money on. Instead F asked for money from America and got enough to pay for five years' research. F&C discovered that penicillin helped mice recover from infections but to treat one person they needed 3000 times as much penicillin! Even large drug companies could not afford to fund this quantity of work.So F&C began growing penicillin in whatever the could, using hundreds of hospital bedpans, even though bedpans were now in demand to make Spitfires! By 1941 there was enough penicillin to test it on one person. The volunteer was Albert Alexander, a policeman who had developed septicaemia from a tiny cut. He was dying. Chemical drugs had not killed the infection. Florey and Chain requested permission to try their new purified penicillin and injections began.The penicillin worked and Alexander began to recover.However, the penicillin ran out after 5 days, even though F&C were extracting unused penicillin from the man's urine and reusing it in a desperate attempt to keep treating him. Penicillin had shown it worked-but how could they make enough?
Stage 4-Wartime needs
Florey and Chain needed help to mass produce penicillin but English factories were busy helping the war effort and couldn't be used. So Florey went to America-at just the right time. In 1941 America was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour and entered the war. The American government realised the potential of penicillin for treating wounded soldiers and made interest-free loans to US companies to buy expensive equipment needed for making penicillin. Soon British firms were also mass producing penicillin, enough to treat the allied wounded on D-Day in 1944-over 2.3 million doses.