Penicillin is the wonder drug that almost wasn't. If a professor of bacteriology at a London hospital had not been away on vacation, his petri dishes might not have developed the mold that was key to penicillin's discovery. If British and American scientists, government agencies and manufacturers had not worked in cooperation, development of penicillin may not have gone forward. Through the efforts of many people, penicillin was successfully produced in time to save numerous lives during World War II and countless lives in the years since.

Good and Bad Bacteria

Bacteria is present on and in the human body from birth and throughout life. Most of this bacteria is harmless, and some bacteria contribute to maintaining normal health. Other strains of bacteria cause infections that lead to disease. The human immune system is designed to fight off diseases caused by bacterial infections. However, there are times when germs are stronger or greater in number than the immune system can handle. When this occurs, people become ill.

Deadly Statistics

In the early 1900s, no treatment existed for even the most common infections. Ninety-percent of children who contracted cerebral meningitis died, and those who survived were often severely disabled. Strep throat was sometimes fatal. Ear infections could spread to the brain and cause complications. About 100,000 Americans died every year from pneumonia and about 2,000 women died from blood poisoning contracted during childbirth. Millions of Americans lived with gonorrhea, a painful ailment for which there was no effective therapy.

Sulfa: A Step Forward

In 1909, German researcher Paul Erlich developed a treatment for syphillis using a compound related to arsenic. Another organoarsenic compound was found to be effective in treating malaria. However, these diseases are caused by protozoa, not bacteria. In the 1930s, German scientists experimenting with dyes developed an antibacterial compound, Prontosil, which prevented bacteria from reproducing. French researchers experimenting with Prontosil developed what came to be known as sulfa drugs. Sulfa drugs were used to treat many illnesses including strep throat, meningitis, pneumonia and dysentery. But sulfa drugs could cause serious side effects, including kidney damage. Moreover, bacteria commonly built up a resistance to sulfa drugs.

Breaking the Mold

In 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming found that petri dishes in which he was growing bacteria were contaminated by mold. Fleming noticed the mold, Penicillium notatum, was excreting a substance that prevented bacteria from growing near it. Fleming was unable to conduct research on his discovery at St. Mary's Hospital in London, but 10 years later, Dr. Howard Florey, a pathology professor at Oxford University, took up the challenge. After isolating the penicillin, Florey and biochemists Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley used it to cure mice of strep. The scientists tested the penicillin on a man whose infection from a small scratch had resisted treatment with sulfa drugs. The man's condition improved considerably, but Florey's team could not produce enough penicillin to save the man's life.

The Push for Penicillin

With England in the midst of war, Florey and Heatley sought help from American scientists in Peoria, Illinois. Together, the scientists found an alternate strain of penicillium mold that produced much greater quantities of penicillin. Government agencies and pharmaceutical companies were called upon to help speed mass production of the drug. The collaboration was successful and penicillin became available in time to make a significant impact during World War II. Thanks to penicillin, the death rate from pneumonia among soldiers dropped to less than one percent. Penicillin also saved the lives of many soldiers who might have died from wounds incurred during the D-Day invasion of 1944, and of course it has saved many millions of lives since.