Originally printed in the Aug. 7, 2002 edition of the Illinois Valley news.
One of the factors which contributed to the Allies victory in World War II was the mass production and use of penicillin in military hospitals. Today its use as an antibiotic has been surpassed by a host of other medicines. In the 1940’s and 50’s penicillin was the primary antibiotic for battlefield infections as well as many other diseases.
Penicillium notatum is the scientific name for the mold which Alexander Fleming discovered growing on a petri dish on Sept. 15, 1928. He had gone on a vacation, “holiday” in England, and left some staphylococcus bacteria culture plates unwashed in his sink. He noticed one had a mold contaminating the bacteria and by chance noticed a clear area around the mold which indicated the mold had killed the bacteria. He wrote an article about his discovery but never tried to purify it or test it on animal infections.
Alexander Fleming, born Aug. 6, 1881 in Scotland, was a bacteriologist and not a chemist and the process of developing his discovery was done later by other scientists. He did use the mold to draw pictures on his bacteria plates by creating lines and clear areas around different colored bacteria colonies. Some writers suggest this is why he gave it the scientific name which it has today. “Penicillin” is Latin for pencil or brush and “notat” is Latin for marked. Fleming was made a knight in 1944 and shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 with Ernst Chain and Howard Florey.
Ernst Chain’s father was a Russian Jew who moved to Berlin to study chemistry.
There he married and Ernst was born in 1906. Chain was educated in Germany but because of his Jewish ancestry had little chance to succeed in Germany in the 1930’s and so he emigrated to England in 1933. He was the chemist who discovered Fleming’s paper on penicillin and worked with Florey to purify the active chemical and find ways to grow the mold in large quantities.
Howard Florey was born in Australia in 1898 and attended Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar. His work with Chain began in 1938 to find and produce a chemical to cure diseases. They first tested lysozyme, which was extracted from human tears and had also been discovered by Alexander Fleming. They next shifted to penicillin when Fleming’s paper was noticed. At first the mold was grown in hospital bed pans because they were available and World War II had made many items difficult to obtain in England. The first test of penicillin was made on mice subjected to a deadly disease. On May 25, 1940 it was observed that all the mice treated with penicillin were still healthy and all the untreated mice had died. Shortly thereafter the antibiotic was tested on humans with mixed success because of the problems of producing enough of the pure drug.
In 1941 part of Florey and Chain’s team traveled to the United States to get help in mass production of penicillin. An agricultural center in Peoria, Illinois developed a fermentation process to grow the mold on corn syrup. By this time the United States had officially entered the war and producing penicillin gained a high priority. Twenty one pharmaceutical companies eventually were involved and by the end of the war 650 billion does of penicillin were being produced every month.
During the time since the war bacteria and other germs have not been idle. Many diseases have developed new strains or varieties which are immune to penicillin. Today new antibiotics are being developed but the germs are not giving up but continue to adapt, so the fight with disease is far from over.