A Moment of Science

The History Of Penicillin

In 1928, Alexander Fleming was studying the bacterium, Staphylococcus, when some of the bacteria became contaminated with Penicillium...

building where Fleming discovered Penicillin

Photo: Steve Hunnisett (flickr)

The building where Fleming discovered Penicillin.

Today, a fever is an uncomfortable nuisance, but a hundred-plus years ago, fevers were often fatal. The difference between then and now is the class of drugs known as antibiotics.

What Are Antibiotics?

As the name implies, “anti-biotics” work “against life,” or, more specifically, against living cells.

While other drugs, such as aspirin, ease the symptoms of a disease, antibiotics attack the living bacteria that are causing the symptoms.

History of Antibiotics

The modern discovery of antibiotics is usually attributed to Alexander Fleming, who was the first to isolate and name “penicillin.”

But the basis for Fleming’s work had begun over fifty years before. In 1874, another English scientist, William Roberts, noticed that some fungi were immune to bacteria.

Later on, the French scientist Louis Pasteur noticed that bacteria stopped growing if they became infected with a microscopic fungus called “penicillium.”

Bacteria And Penicillin

In 1928, Alexander Fleming was studying the bacterium, Staphylococcus, when some of the bacteria became contaminated with Penicillium fungus and stopped growing.

Fleming decided that some chemical produced by the Penicillium fungus must be stopping the growth of the Staphylococcus bacteria. Fleming isolated that chemical and called it “penicillin.”

Treating Patients

Fleming’s own attempts to treat patients with penicillin were not very successful, but during the next few decades, scientists were able to isolate purer doses of penicillin and the new drug turned out to be one of the most significant medical advances of the twentieth century.

Since antibiotics kill living cells, one of the problems is finding antibiotics that will kill bacteria cells without killing the patient’s own cells. But that’s our topic for next time.

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