A Moment of Science

Tanks, Guns, and Sulfa Powder

Find out how this early antibacterial drug helped the American troops in WWII.

bottles of sulfanilamide

Photo: U.S. FDA

Sulfa was so widely used by American troops during World War II that it played a role in helping the Allies win.

Have you heard of sulfanilamide, pronounced sulfa-NIL-ah-mide, one of the first widely used antibacterial drugs?

If not, it might be because sulfanilamide, or sulfa for short, was replaced by penicillin and other antibacterials developed after World War II.

However, in the years before the war and especially during the war, sulfa was big. In fact, if you were a soldier then, you probably carried a pouch of white sulfa powder to sprinkle on open wounds, to ward off infection. You might also have been issued vials of sulfa tablets to treat and prevent dysentery.

Sulfa was so widely used by American troops during World War II that it played a role in helping the Allies win. Unlike American soldiers, Japanese troops did not have a ready supply of sulfa drugs. Overall, Japanese soldiers suffered more from bacterial diseases like dysentery. An infectious germ spread throughout a battalion could do just as much damage as a squadron of enemy tanks.

One problem with sulfa drugs was that in large doses they could damage the kidneys. Also, the more they were used, the less effective they became as bacteria evolved and built up resistance to the drugs.

Still, sulfanilamide was revolutionary. In the 1920s and early 30s, an average of 100,000 Americans died every year from pneumonia, and two-thousand women died in childbirth from a bacterial infection called childbed fever. Sulfa drugs made these and other bacterial diseases much less deadly.

Also, by helping to keep American soldiers healthy during the second World War, sulfa also had a hand in shaping the course of history.

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