The Discovery and Development of Modern Penicillin (Fall 2012)

In ancient science and art of healing, blessings played significant roles to cure illness. It was thought that healer’s blessing must be conjugated in order for medicines to work. In addition, the preventive measure for illness included various types of magic, blessings, and prayers. In ancient Egypt, people created pill, lozeneges, and ointments from herbs and plants to treat different illness. The remedies developed, however, were not specific having general effect. Over the last hundred years, many medicines that are directed against a particular agent are developed. Additionally, there are major improvements in understanding of medicines in the modern world today then ancient times. In fact, pharmaceuticals, both non-prescription and prescription, have had a dramatic impact in changing our world today that “the average person in the U.S. is now expected to live to nearly 80 years” [2]. This is because pharmaceutical companies are developing and introducing advance and new medication at rapid pace. One of the most important discovery in the 20th century is Penicillin, that allowed that help prevent infection as a result save a number of soldiers in battlefield.

Penicillin are a collection of antibiotic medicine that are derived from Penicillium fungi. Penicillin antibiotics historically have been significant in medicine because they are the first medicines “that were effective against many previously serious diseases, such assyphilis, and infections caused by staphylococcui and streptococci” (3). Although many types of bacteria are now penicillin resistance, they are still well known and widely used in modern medicine, as they are able to eliminate infection-causing bacteria.

Penicillin was originally discovered in the late 19th Century by Ernest Duchesne, who was a medical student (5). Later in 1928, the antibiotic properties re-discovered by Alexander Fleming in his laboratory by chance as a sample of bacteria known as Staphylococci become contaminated by mold called Pencillium fungi and all bacteria near the mold were dying. Fleming observed the contamination of his many culture plates with a fungus after he returned from month long vacation. The anti-bacterial properties of the mold lead him to see the importance of the finding and the great need for further investigation of the contaminating mold. It was after this discovery that Fleming named the extract from the mold that inhibited the bacterial growth as penicillin.

Penicillin discovered by Alexander Fleming; but the two scientists at Oxford University named Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in 1941 turned it into a usable product. The first time the drug was tested mice and then on patient named Alber Alexander, who recovered after treatment but later died because they had run out. Enormous effectiveness of penicillin was shown and numbers of lives were saved using small amount of the drug by 1942 but shortage of the drug was an issue. This discovery and development of penicillin described as a ‘miracle drug’. The introduction of penicillin during war effort led to be one of the greatest advances in therapeutic medicine. Although the initial discovery of penicillin and recognition of its therapeutic potential took place in the United Kingdome, the United States played the major role in mass production of the drug during World War II. In addition to USA, “The very nature of warfare between 1939 and 1945 forced the medical world to rush forward the pace of advance in medicine”, penicillin, to treat soldiers in battlefields from poisoned blood that carried the infection into their wounds [3].

During World War I, Fleming was drawn into the field of antiseptics and pushed to search for cures to infections. Prior to the use of penicillin, during World War I, the chance of wounded soldiers getting infected was high and survival greatly decreased.

However, later during World War II the drug production in large qualities was started to treat soldiers in battlefields from poisoned blood that carried the infection into their wounds. Penicillin was said to treat soldiers with almost all camp diseased they encounter.

As penicillin began to reach the public attention, the demand for the drug greatly increased. At first, supply of penicillin was limited and military use was given the priority. However, the major goal was to insure an adequate supply of the drug on hand. Therefore, wartime was the significant reason for the greatly stimulated large-scale of penicillin production in the United Kingdom and the United States. In 1943, in order to stimulate the work on the drug by the manufacturers, Albert Elder wrote: “You are urged to impress upon every worker in your plant that penicillin produced today will be saving the life of someone in a few days or curing the disease of someone now incapacitated. Put up slogans in your plant! Place notices in pay envelopes! Create an enthusiasm for the job down to the lowest worker in your plant" (6). Due to the increased value of penicillin in war effort, the War Production Board (WPB) took responsibility for large production of the drug. Under the direction of Albert Elder, the WPB investigated several companies and selected producer to participate in a penicillin program. The disposition of produced penicillin was under WPB controlled.

Here we see how politics and government is one of the history forces that plays a role. War was a significant factor along with the governments in penicillin production improvement. The drug could not have come at a better time. The United State government invested approximately $75 million money to help manufactures to install expensive plant (3). In both USA government and British there were organized co-operation between firms. Both governments had an agreement to by as much penicillin as made. Thus, the producers made as much penicillin as possible. Interaction and exchange was another an strong force as it was very important for the two governments and the different drugs manufacturers to communicate. The organized systems that are used to rule a people impact the production of the drug.

Dramatically an increase production of penicillin was begun by early 1944. In the United States, the production was increased to 1,663 billion units in 1944 from 21 billion units in 1943, and to more than 6.8 trillion units in 1945. Thus, penicillin was available to be distributed to consumer in all pharmacy. By 1949, the annual production was even more increased to 133,229 billion and the price had dropped to less than ten cents from twenty dollars in 1943. Technology had influence in mass synthesis of penicillin. Science and technology was the powerful force because it was at a time producers had the technology to provide a faster and large quantity of penicillin to synthesize as needed. In 1942, however, Florey and Chain were not able to produce it in large amount. Technologically advance drug manufacturing industry was vitally important for faster and mass production of penicillin since they had advance equipment.

During World War II, the U.S government authorized 19 companies to produce penicillin antibiotic. Pfizer was the only company with high production levels and quality. Pfizer devoted its energies to produce 90 percent of the penicillin that went ashore with Allies forces at Normandy, France on D-Day in 1944 [7]. More than half of all the drugs that were produced used by the Allies for the rest of the war helped to save numerous lives. Here we see the economics history force play a role as manufactures compete to make money. In fact, Pfizer produced the most and increased its business. Thus, the importance of this lifesaving drug was fully realized during WWII where was the most active antibiotical medicine to prevent gangrene and wounds infections. Along with other medicines, penicillin significantly reduced mortality rate and revolutionized healthcare. Also the dramatically increase in production of the drug can even be argued that it did play a role in helping the Allies to win the war. Penicillin was given nickname of “the wonder drug” and in 1945 Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine.

There are a number of factors that were reasons or helped the development of penicillin. Fleming was important in helping to develop the drug initially because without his work penicillin might have not been existed. After his accidental discovery, he proved that the newly found drug could work on other germs. Later the crucial investigation was done by Florey and Chain on penicillin led to be used on human. Another factor that was a main reason for production of the penicillin was World War II. At the time, British and American governments did support Flory’s team and manufacturer in the development of penicillin. American government further supported and encouraged industries financially to find a way to mass-produce penicillin. All these led to sufficient amount penicillin to be disperse around the world today.

In conclusion, more then sixty years after penicillin discovery, it is still one of the most widely used antibiotics. The medicine not only played a role in treating a disease but it was also able to prevent infection and even kill infections that already developed. The issue however becomes that more and more bacteria have developed resistance to the drug. The discovery of the drug has had its impact on history and today. Fleming along with all other scientists discovered indeed a “miracle drug” as this drug have saved more lives than any other drug created since WWII. Although some people do not seem to realize the important contribution in healthcare as it prevents many children from getting diseases including infections of bone, stomach, or other infections considered as minor disease. Enormous people and generations would probably be here today if it were not for the discovery and development of this miracle drug called penicillin.


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  6. "American Chemical Society - The World's Largest Scientific Society." American Chemical Society - The World's Largest Scientific Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.
  7. "Penicillin Production: Biotechnology at Its Best." N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.