The origin of…Penicillin

“Long lives aren’t natural. We forget that senior citizens are as much an invention as toasters or penicillin.” Douglas Coupland


Even though the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming has been recognized as the inventor of penicillin, a group of antibiotics derived from Penicillium fungi, in 1928, there have been some events leading up to his invention. In 1897 the French physician Ernest Duchesne published a medical thesis in which he studied the interaction between Escherichia coli (a bacteria) and Penicillium glaucum (a mold) and its healing properties. In 1895 the Italian physician Vincenzo Tiberio published a study on the effects of this mold that he saw in a well near his house in Arzano.
Alexander Fleming showed that if Penicillium rubens was grown on the appropriate surface, it would secrete a substance with antibiotic properties, which he called penicillin. He discovered this by accident as he noticed that a dish with Staphylococcus that had been mistakenly left open was contaminated by blue-green mold. Around the mold was a halo of constrained growth and Fleming saw concluded the mold released a substance that blocked the growth of the bacteria. He then grew a pure version of the mold, Penicillium notatum.
In the beginning, his discovery wasn´t given much attention, but despite the lack of interest, he conducted various experiments on his findings. The most important observation was that it was nontoxic in human beings.

Since Fleming did not have the laboratory resources nor the chemistry background to take his discovery to the next level, Dr. Howard Florey took it upon him to further investigate the properties of this mold, after he came across Fleming´s paper on penicilline in 1938.
In 1941 Howard Florey and Norman Heatly (a biochemist who worked at Florey´s lab) traveled to the US to get pharmaceutical companies interested in mass-producing the drug (Fleming, Florey and Ernst Chain received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 194), which appeared to be difficult. More research was conducted and in 1943, a moldy cantaloupe in Illinois was found to contain the best strain of fungus for production using the corn steep liquor process. Large-scale production followed from the development of deep-tank fermentation by chemical engineer Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau and as a direct result of the war and the War Production Board, over 646 billion units of penicillin per year were being produced by June 1945. Methods for mass production of penicillin were patented by Andrew Jackson Moyer in 1945 (Florey had not patented penicillin, having been advised by Sir Henry Dale that doing so would be unethical).

Since the body excretes about 80% of a penicillin dose within 3 to 4 hours, so frequent doses are required. During the early penicillin era, it was so scarce and so highly valued that it was common practice to collect the urine from patients being treated, so that the penicillin in the urine could be isolated and reused. Obviously, this was not an optimal solution, so ways to slow excretion were searched for. The solution was found in probenecid, a uricosuric agent, that, when administered together with penicillin, it inhibits the excretion of penicillin. With mass-production techniques improving, the use of probenecid declined.

After WWII, Australia was the first country to make penicillin available for civilian use, followed by the US on March 15, 1945.
Even though the number of penicillin resistant bacteria is expanding, penicillin can still be used to treat a wide range of infections caused by certain susceptible bacteria, like Streptococci, Staphylococci, Clostridium, and Listeria genera.

a medicine that is used to kill harmful bacteria (source: Merriam Webster).

The English penicillin, Dutch penicilline, Spanish penicilina and Italian penicillina come from Modern Latin Penicillium notatum (1867), the name of the mould from which it was first obtained, from Latin penicillus, paintbrush, referring to the shape of the mould cells (source:

Penicillin in other languages:
Dutch: de penicilline
Spanish: la penicilina
Italian: la penicillina


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