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first antibiotic discovered

first antibiotic discovered

first antibiotic discovered

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History of penicillin

The history of penicillin follows a number of observations and discoveries of apparent evidence of antibiotic activity of the mould Penicillium that led to the development of penicillins that became the most widely used antibiotics. Following the identification of Penicillium rubens as the source of the compound in 1928 and with the production of pure compound in 1942, penicillin became the first naturally derived antibiotic. There are anecdotes about ancient societies using moulds to treat infections, and in the following centuries many people observed the inhibition of bacterial growth by various moulds. However, it is unknown if the species involved were Penicillium species or if the antimicrobial substances produced were penicillin.

While working at St Mary’s Hospital in London, Scottish physician Alexander Fleming was the first to experimentally discover that a Penicillium mould secretes an antibacterial substance, and the first to concentrate the active substance involved, which he named penicillin in 1928.


The mould was determined to be a rare variant of Penicillium notatum (now Penicillium rubens), a laboratory contaminant in his lab. For the next 16 years, he pursued better methods of production of penicillin, medicinal uses and clinical trial. His successful treatment of Harry Lambert who had otherwise-fatal streptococcal meningitis in 1942 proved to be a critical moment in the medical usage of penicillin.

Many later scientists were involved in the stabilization and mass production of penicillin and in the search for more productive strains of Penicillium. Important contributors include Ernst Chain, Howard Florey, Norman Heatley and Edward Abraham. Fleming, Florey and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery and development of penicillin. Dorothy Hodgkin received the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry determining the structures of important biochemical substances including penicillin. Shortly after the discovery of penicillin, there were reports of penicillin resistance in many bacteria. Research that aims to circumvent and understand the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance continues today.

first antibiotic discovered
first antibiotic discovered


An antibiotic is a type of antimicrobial substance active against bacteria. It is the most important type of antibacterial agent for fighting bacterial infections, and antibiotic medications are widely used in the treatment and prevention of such infections. They may either kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria. A limited number of antibiotics also possess antiprotozoal activity. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses such as the common cold or influenza; drugs which inhibit viruses are termed antiviral drugs or antivirals rather than antibiotics.

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Sometimes, the term antibiotic—literally “opposing life”, from the Greek roots ἀντι anti, “against” and βίος bios, “life”—is broadly used to refer to any substance used against microbes, but in the usual medical usage, antibiotics (such as penicillin) are those produced naturally (by one microorganism fighting another), whereas nonantibiotic antibacterials (such as sulfonamides and antiseptics) are fully synthetic.


However, both classes have the same goal of killing or preventing the growth of microorganisms, and both are included in antimicrobial chemotherapy. “Antibacterials” include antiseptic drugs, antibacterial soaps, and chemical disinfectants, whereas antibiotics are an important class of antibacterials used more specifically in medicine and sometimes in livestock feed.

Antibiotics have been used since ancient times. Many civilizations used topical application of moldy bread, with many references to its beneficial effects arising from ancient Egypt, Nubia, China, Serbia, Greece, and Rome. The first person to directly document the use of molds to treat infections was John Parkinson (1567–1650). Antibiotics revolutionized medicine in the 20th century. Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) discovered modern day penicillin in 1928, the widespread use of which proved significantly beneficial during wartime. However, the effectiveness and easy access to antibiotics have also led to their overuse and some bacteria have evolved resistance to them. The World Health Organization has classified antimicrobial resistance as a widespread “serious threat [that] is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country”.

Discovery and Development of Penicillin

Designated November 19, 1999, at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum in London, U.K. Also recognized at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., and the five American pharmaceutical companies that contributed to penicillin production research during WWII: Abbott Laboratories, Lederle Laboratories (now Pfizer, Inc.), Merck & Co., Inc., Chas. Pfizer & Co. Inc. (now Pfizer, Inc.) and E.R. Squibb & Sons (now Bristol-Myers Squibb Company).

Alexander Fleming’s Discovery of Penicillin

Penicillin heralded the dawn of the antibiotic age. Before its introduction there was no effective treatment for infections such as pneumonia, gonorrhea or rheumatic fever. Hospitals were full of people with blood poisoning contracted from a cut or a scratch, and doctors could do little for them but wait and hope.

Antibiotics are compounds produced by bacteria and fungi which are capable of killing, or inhibiting, competing microbial species. This phenomenon has long been known; it may explain why the ancient Egyptians had the practice of applying a poultice of moldy bread to infected wounds. But it was not until 1928 that penicillin, the first true antibiotic, was discovered by Alexander Fleming, Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London.

first antibiotic discovered
first antibiotic discovered


Returning from holiday on September 3, 1928, Fleming began to sort through petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus, bacteria that cause boils, sore throats and abscesses. He noticed something unusual on one dish. It was dotted with colonies, save for one area where a blob of mold was growing. The zone immediately around the mold—later identified as a rare strain of Penicillium notatum—was clear, as if the mold had secreted something that inhibited bacterial growth.

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Fleming found that his “mold juice” was capable of killing a wide range of harmful bacteria, such as streptococcus, meningococcus and the diphtheria bacillus. He then set his assistants, Stuart Craddock and Frederick Ridley, the difficult task of isolating pure penicillin from the mold juice. It proved to be very unstable, and they were only able to prepare solutions of crude material to work with. Fleming published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in June 1929, with only a passing reference to penicillin’s potential therapeutic benefits. At this stage it looked as if its main application would be in isolating penicillin-insensitive bacteria from penicillin-sensitive bacteria in a mixed culture. This at least was of practical benefit to bacteriologists, and kept interest in penicillin going. Others, including Harold Raistrick, Professor of Biochemistry at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tried to purify penicillin but failed.


Antibiotics have been used for millennia to treat infections, although until the last century. Or so people did not know the infections were caused by bacteria. Various moulds and plant extracts were used to treat infections by some of the earliest civilisations. The ancient Egyptians, for example, applied mouldy bread to infected wounds. Nevertheless, until the 20th century, infections that we now consider straightforward to treat. Such as pneumonia and diarrhoea – that are caused by bacteria, were the number one cause of human death in the developed world.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that scientists began to observe antibacterial chemicals in action. Paul Ehrlich, a German physician, noted that certain chemical dyes coloured some bacterial cells but not others. He concluded that, according to this principle, it must be possible to create substances. That can kill certain bacteria selectively without harming other cells. In 1909, he discovered that a chemical called arsphenamine was an effective treatment for syphilis. This became the first modern antibiotic, although Ehrlich himself referred to his discovery as ‘chemotherapy’. The use of a chemical to treat a disease. The word ‘antibiotics’ was first used over 30 years later by the Ukrainian-American inventor and microbiologist Selman Waksman. Who in his lifetime discovered over 20 antibiotics.

800 times

Alexander Fleming was, it seems, a bit disorderly in his work and accidentally discovered penicillin. Upon returning from a holiday in Suffolk in 1928, he noticed that a fungus, Penicillium notatum, had contaminated a culture plate of Staphylococcus bacteria he had accidentally left uncovered. The fungus had created bacteria-free zones wherever it grew on the plate. Fleming isolated and grew the mould in pure culture. He found that P. notatum proved extremely effective even at very low concentrations, preventing Staphylococcus growth even. When diluted 800 times, and was less toxic than the disinfectants used at the time.

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After early trials in treating human wounds, collaborations with British pharmaceutical companies ensured that the mass production of penicillin was possible. Following a fire in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, in which nearly 500 people died. Many survivors received skin grafts which are liable to infection by Staphylococcus. Treatment with penicillin was hugely successful, and the US government began supporting the mass production of the drug. By D-Day in 1944, penicillin was being widely used to treat troops for infections. Both in the field and in hospitals throughout Europe. By the end of World War II, penicillin was nicknamed ‘the wonder drug’ and had saved many lives.

first antibiotic discovered
first antibiotic discovered

New possibilities for humanity

With the introduction of antibiotics, infectious diseases that previously got people killed or severely disabled. Was now regarded as easily treatable. To give an example, the survival rate of bacterial pneumonia dramatically increased from 20% to 85% between 1937 and 1964.

Without any doubt, antibiotics have revolutionized medicine in many respects and is a prerequisite for today’s high-technological healthcare. Perhaps most people associate antibiotics with successful treatment of bacterial respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs) or gastrointestinal infections.

Without antibiotics

However, without antibiotics it would no longer be possible to perform organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, intensive care. And other surgical procedures, such as hip replacements. Also the care of preterm babies would become more difficult and potentially life. Threatening since these children are less able to fight off infections.

In essence, our misuse of antibiotics accelerates the emergence and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Today we also see an alarming increase in new bacterial strains resistant to several antibiotics at the same time. Such bacteria may eventually become resistant to all existing antibiotics and we will then be entering the post-antibiotic era.

Thank you for staying with this post “first antibiotic discovered” until the end.

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