Is penicillin the most important drug to ever be discovered?
Penicillin was first discovered in 1928 and is now the most widely known antibiotic in the world. This despite the fact that it was found by accident! Dr Alexander Fleming, at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, while doing research on Staphylococcus aureus, his sample became contaminated by a species of Penicillium. Although this species of mould was unknown to Fleming, he did observe that it was inhibiting the growth of the bacteria. He published his findings in 1929, and as they say, the rest is history.
This wasn’t the actual beginning of the journey of penicillin, but rather a culmination of a series of observations that influenced his research, which allowed him to come to the correct conclusion, however having followed through on the observation and focussing his study on this ‘accident’, allowed him this prestige. Interestingly, it was a student of his Dr. Cecil Paine who would be the first to demonstrate the actual value of penicillin in medicine, although, having never published his findings, his experiments were not credited as they should have been, and in effect probably delayed the serious development of penicillin as a ‘wonder’ drug.
By 1941, it was acknowledged that penicillin was indeed a worthwhile drug, and could in effect save thousands of lives. However, at this stage, the ‘production’ process of penicillin was not effective enough to make a real impact. It was only once a different species called Penicillium chrysogenum was discovered, which produced approximately 200 times as much penicillin that the real results began. It was studies on this penicillin, by irradiating it with X-rays and UV rays, as well as new methods of growing penicillin, which truly leads to the drug we know today.
Penicillin’s main claim to fame is that in treating illnesses that were almost always fatal, it had the opportunity to save lives that were thought to be indefinitely lost. Penicillin is still to this day used to treat these formerly severe and life-threatening illnesses such as bacterial endocarditis, meningitis, pneumococcal pneumonia, gonorrhoea and syphilis, although its effectiveness has waned as tolerance to penicillin has grown due to overuse. It is, however, almost impossible to imagine a medical life, without the ‘invention’ of penicillin.