World War II was a historical turning point not only for the basis of political power and war tactics, but also for drugs and medical advances. Between 1939 and 1945, new medical techniques were developed as a direct response to new weaponry. One of the more profound advances was penicillin, discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming. During the war, the drug helped reduce the overall number of amputations and deaths.
Development of the Drug
Fleming observed the growth pattern of mold on a staphylococcus culture plate. Specifically he saw that if Pencillium, a genus of fungi, was grown in the appropriate substrate, it would produce an antibiotic substance, which he called penicillin. Fleming later deduced that penicillin could be used as an antibiotic to treat life-threatening illnesses including meningitis, pneumonia, syphilis and other forms of bacteria. Even though penicillin was discovered in 1928, before the war broke out, it took the devastation of the war to force governments to adopt it on a wide-scale basis and to force companies to produce it en masse. In 1941 and 1942, British and U.S. scientists respectively discovered that it could be used to treat wounds. Penicillin was so effective that production increased from 400 million units in early 1943 to more than 650 billion units per month by the end of the war in 1945.
Early Clinical Trials
In 1941, Albert Alexander became the first patient to be treated with penicillin. Alexander's nose had been scratched on a rose bush and the infection from that wound spread. Charles Fletcher, a young British doctor, treated Alexander with penicillin in regular doses over four days. Within 24 hours of the first treatment, Alexander began to heal. Before a complete recovery, however, Alexander died, but the results were strong enough to encourage doctors to continue testing the drug. Results published in August 1941 in the medical journal "The Lancet" showed that four of five patients survived their various illnesses after being treated with penicillin. Similar results were seen in U.S. studies, and the Allied Forces were encouraged by medical professionals to use the drug on the battlefield.
Penicillin and D-Day
The majority of penicillin used during the war was produced by drug giant Glaxo. Supplies of penicillin were sent with the troops making the D-day landings in June 1944. It was discovered to be particularly effective against gangrene. As a result, the death toll from infected wounds dramatically decreased. Penicillin was also used to solve a problem that plagued the battlefield: the wait time between when a solider was wounded and when he was seen by a doctor for surgery or treatment. In the Allied Forces, the average wait time was nearly 14 hours. The longer the wait, the higher the probability that the infected area would need amputation. Administering penicillin to the wounded vastly reduced the chance that the wound could get infected and increased the survival chances in the interim time between the wounding and surgery.
Expansions of Penicillin's Use
A further problem on the battlefield was septicaemia, or blood poisoning. Septicaemia could occur if patients were operated on with equipment that had not been properly sterilized or if bacteria was spread from one patient to another within the hospital or surgical unit. Along with the invention of antiseptics by the English surgeon Joseph Lister, penicillin was used in World War II to keep infections from spreading. By attacking open wounds with penicillin and sterilizing surgeries with antiseptics, army doctors were able to revitalize troops more quickly.