Event 86

Beginning 1941 AD

Penicilllium chrysogenum
Penicillium chrysogenum (formerly known as Penicillium notatum) is cultured in a petri dish in this photo. It is the mold that is the source of penicillin. P. chrysogenum is commonly found on foods. It wasn’t until 1942 that the first patient with streptococcal septicemia was treated with penicillin in the U.S.
Credit: Photo by Crulina 98, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Most people today assume that they will survive into adulthood. This was not the case a century ago, when death by infection was much more common. After the beginning of research into the mass production of penicillin starting in 1941 and dramatic improvements in the production process over the next couple of years, millions of doses were on hand for injured troops by the time of the Normandy invasion in 1944. This was the beginning of a radical revolution in the successful treatment of infections that has had significant impact on human populations for many decades now, and eventually set forth massive efforts to find other powerful antibiotics to combat the spread of bacterial infections.

While the power of penicillin to curb infections had been noted in the later 1800’s, and bread mold had reportedly been used to treat wounds for centuries, the official ‘discovery’ of penicillin (produced by Penicillium, a fungus commonly found in damp buildings), is usually credited to Alexander Fleming, who in 1928 noted its antibiotic properties and how it could be propagated. The usefulness of penicillin was investigated further during the 1930’s and early 1940’s by researchers such as Cecil Paine, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley.

After further successes in treating various infections with penicillin, research focused especially on the problem of producing sufficient quantities of this antibiotic fungus to treat large numbers of people. After this research was brought to the U.S. in 1941 by a group of Oxford scientists (to avoid the ravages of war in England), first to a lab in Peoria, Illinois, critical breakthroughs were made in increasing production of the antibiotic, and mass production and use of penicillin in the latter years of World War II saved many lives. Penicillin was the first of many “miracle drugs” to be tested, mass produced, and widely administered to combat disease pathogens. Other drugs have been developed to control high blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol, reduce the chances of contracting malaria, and lower the severity of asthma attacks. And medical devices such as stents implanted in blood vessels have reduced the possibility of strokes and aneurisms. One challenge to new antibiotic treatments is that some microorganisms are developing a resistance to certain drugs, in essence evolving immunities to the drugs we develop. Within a few short years of World War II, in fact, a Staphylocossus bacterium had begun to develop resistance to the new “miracle drug,” penicillin.




It is likely that sometime in your life you have been given antibiotics to treat some infection. Prior to antibiotics, your chances of these infections developing into something more serious and potentially life-threatening, such as pneumonia, septicemia (blood-poisoning), and gangrene, were much greater.




This is a webpage that talks about the history of antibiotics, including penicillin.

This webpage is specifically about penicillin.

This Nobel Prize webpage about Sir Alexander Fleming and his role in discovering penicillin and his research in antibiotic substances.

This is a webpage about noted 19th century scientist John Tyndall.



Comments are closed.