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  • Created by: Megan
  • Created on: 17-11-12 10:54

When was penicillin discovered?

Penicillin itself is made from a mould called penicillium. It was first discovered in the early nineteenth cerntury by John Sanderson who found that very little grew near it. In the 1880's Joseph Lister these observations and wrote to his brother saying that he intended to try penicillin on infected wounds. Lister successfully used penicillin to treat a young nurse who had an infected wound. However, he did not leave any notes on this case and apparently stopped using the mould. Several other scientists investigated the mould but were unable to produce sufficient quantities or discover a way of applying it to a patient. It was in the Lab of St. Mary's Hospital, London in 1928, that Alexander Fleming rediscovered the properties of penicillin. This is how Fleming's biographer describes the discovery. Fleming's friend Pryce had gone to visit him in his lab.

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On investigation

On investigation he found that penicillin bacteria had got onto the dish, possibly blown in through an open window. The penicillin was killing the Staphylococci. There are other versions of the story of how Fleming discovered penicillin. Indeed Fleming's own versins varied. When he explained in 1945 how he grew the mould it was a different explanation from his original report for a research paper in 1929. However, the important point is that Fleming observed the results and recognised their significance- that penicillin could be applied to or injected into areas infected with peniccilin-sensitive microbes. However, Fleming did not have the facilities or the support to develop and test his idea that penicillin could fight infection.

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How was penicillin developed?

It was the second world war which finally brought about the successful development of penicillin. In the 1930's two oxford scientists, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, became interested in Fleming's 1929 paper about penicillin. In 1939 they gathered together a skilled research team, including pathologists, chemists and biochemists, and three days after the outbreak of the second world war, Florey asked the British Government for money to fund the team's research into penicillin.

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3 stages to penicillin.


The process devised by chain to make penicillin was a combination of the latest freeze-drying technology and some much more traditional equipment: thousands of milk bottles(in which to grow the bacteria), milk churns, a dog bath and a hand pump! Slowly the team gathered a few grams of pure penicillin.


There was just enough penicillin to try an experiment on eight mice. They were all injected with dangerous microbes. Four mice were then given penicillin. Four mice were not. Twenty-four hours later the mice who had not been injected with penicillin were dead. Those who had been given penicillin were fine.


The team needed more penicillin for a human trial than they had for the mice. It was not until early 1941 that they had enough to test on a human patient.

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In conclusion...

Although this patient still died, the trial confirmed that penicillin was a powerful drug. Florey was sure that if enough had been available the man would have lived. Production of penicillin remained painfully slow, but as new batches were produced, two more patients were successfully treated. A year later, in August 1942, Fleming himself used penicillin successfully to treat a friend who had meningitis.

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