Penicillin has been the most widely used antibiotic. An antibiotic is a substance that slows down the growth of or kills disease causing microorganisms. It was the first antibiotic to be used successfully to treat diseases.
The antibiotic is derived from a mold. It may have been used in a crude form thousands of years ago by ancient Egyptians and Chinese. Penicillin became widely used in the 1940’s. Before then, the human population was vulnerable to many common diseases and infections.
Photo: Penicillin is obtained from the blue-green Penicillium mold (Creative Commons: Kathie Hodge).
Penicillin is derived from the Penicillium mold. The mold is commonly found in the environment. It lives in the soil and will grow on plants and food products. The mold is not pure penicillin.
Several societies used the mold to treat injuries thousands of years ago. The early Egyptians used moldy bread to help heal injuries. The Chinese used moldy bean curd to treat skin infections. Other cultures used soil (containing the mold) to treat injuries.
Discovery and Medical Use
French chemist Louis Pasteur observed that the mold inhibited the growth of Anthrax. British surgeon Joseph Lister also observed the effects of the mold in 1871. However, neither could isolate the substance producing that effect.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered that that substance. While on vacation, he left a culture plate of bacteria exposed. The plated was contaminated by speck of mold. When he returned from vacation, he observed the area around the mold remained clear. He concluded that the mold was producing an antibiotic substance. He named this substance penicillin. Fleming is given credit for the antibiotic’s discovery.
In 1939, Howard Florey and his team of researchers picked up where Fleming left off. The British team was able to isolate the substance and test it experimentally with mice. Florey left for the United States to obtain assistance in mass producing the drug. By 1943, penicillin was being mass-produced. The miracle drug was used in the late stages of World War II and helped influence the outcome of the war.
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