The Accidental Discovery of Penicillin
In the era before antibiotics, bacterial infections were a serious problem.
Common diseases that are easily treatable today, such as strep throat, sinus infections, and ear infections, were far more dangerous and debilitating. Physical injury, particularly burns, carried a high risk of wound infection, which can be deadly.
The discovery of penicillin, the first antibiotic, was awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Still used today, penicillin opened the door for more effective treatment of a variety of bacterial infections.
Sir Alexander Fleming and the accidental discovery of Penicillin
In 1928, Alexander Fleming was studying staphylococcus, a type of bacteria that can sometimes cause infections in humans. After leaving his Petri dish unattended, he returned to find a blue-green mold growing on his samples. Around the edge of the mold there was an area filled with dead bacteria.
Upon examining the dead cells, Fleming concluded that they had died by lysing, or rupture of their cell wall. In fact, this is how penicillin kills bacteria—when bacteria replication, they introduce a weakness in the cell wall (designed to hold and protect components of a cell). In the presence of penicillin, bacteria are unable to reform the cell wall and die.
Further research showed that the mold produced a substance that kills bacteria, and refinement of this substance led to the development of penicillin.
Although Fleming made his initial discovery in 1928, the first cures of a bacterial infection using penicillin did not occur until 1942. Even once its effectiveness had been demonstrated, challenges in mass production meant that the drug did not become publically available in the United States until March of 1945.
In that same year, Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Boris Chain, and Sir Howard Walter Florey received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.”
- Bacterial infections were difficult to treat before the development of antibiotics.
- The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered by accident by Sir Alexander Fleming, and was subsequently mass-produced. These combined contributions received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945.
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