//Penicillin: An Accidental Discovery which Saved Millions of Lives
Penicillin: From Accidental Discovery to Saving Millions

Penicillin: An Accidental Discovery which Saved Millions of Lives

Penicillin was one of the greatest accidental discoveries in the history of mankind. It was the first antibiotic which was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 which initiated the modern era of medicines. Penicillin had a huge role in saving humans from bacterial diseases which once considered as deadly.

It also played a major role in changing the course of World War 2 towards the allied forces of the United Kingdom and America. Although penicillin was massively produced by Americans for allied forces, it saved the life of Adolf Hitler after his assassination attempt in 1944. Many believed that without the treatment A. Hitler would have died.

What is an Antibiotic? And why Penicillin Discovery was such a Big Deal?

Generally, antibiotic is a drug which is of biologic origin meaning it should be produced from a living organism. It is used to treat bacterial infections but is not effective on infections caused by viruses.

Back then, when dying from bacterial infections was very common, antibiotics have not only saved countless lives but also played a pivotal role in treating infections which can arise after surgeries, joint replacement or organ transplants.

penicillin-chemical structure
Penicillin Chemical Structure

Penicillin was the first ever antibiotic which was discovered and it eventually turned out to be the turning point in saving millions of individuals. It was effective against the host of infectious diseases which had crippled humans since the very beginning. After its discovery and availability; now, doctors have the options for saving their patients from deadly infectious diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis, pneumococcal pneumonia, sinusitis, spinal meningitis and many more.

The Story of Penicillin Discovery

It all started in 1881 Scotland with the birth of a boy named Alexander Fleming. During his early days, A. Fleming schooled in Scotland. Eventually, along with his three brothers and a sister he moved to London for his further education. In 1906, he graduated from St Mary’s Medical School at London University with distinction.

After which, he never intended to begin a career in research, instead, he served as the private in the London Scottish Regiment of the Territorial Army. It was the St. Mary’s rifle club’s captain who convinced him to pursue a career in research rather than surgery. He introduced him to Sir A. Wright who was a pioneer in immunology and vaccine research.

The Miracle Year

Bacteria culture

It was the year 1928 when Dr. Fleming began the series of experiments on Staphylococcal bacteria which later changed the course of medicine forever. After initiating the experiments, he left for his vacation accidentally leaving his Petri dishes having Staphylococcal bacteria uncovered near the window.

Upon his arrival from the vacation, Fleming observed that his uncovered Petri dishes present near the open window became contaminated with mold spores. Due to this, all the bacteria present near the molds in the Petri dish was dying.

After examining his Petri dishes, Fleming noted that the mold responsible for killing the Staphylococcal bacteria was Penicillium notatum and he named its active agent as penicillin. He found out that it was effective against the number of bacteria responsible for causing scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria and gonorrhea. It took few more weeks to confirm his findings and in 1929 he published his discovery of penicillin in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology.

When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did – A. Franklin after discovering the Penicillin

Alexander Fleming
Alexander Fleming.
(2006). A replica of Alexander Fleming’s Nobel medal. The Ulster medical journal, 75(2), 153-4.

Although, Dr. Fleming published his work in 1929; his efforts to purify the penicillin from the mold proved beyond his capabilities and he dropped the idea. From here on, it took more than a decade to isolate and purify penicillin as a therapeutic compound for clinical use.

Penicillin and the Oxford Connection

Successful use of sulfa drugs by Germans for treating the infections sparked the interest of the scientists to find other effective agents. It was Ernst Chain at Oxford University who found Fleming’s paper on penicillin and proposed the idea of isolating it to his supervisor Howard Florey.

In 1939, H. Florey assembled a team including E. Chain who was successful in purifying penicillin from an extract from the mold. It was 25th May 1939, when the group infected 8 mice with Streptococcus bacteria and then injected 4 of those mice with penicillin and other 4 mice were kept as untreated to observe the effect.


Next morning, all 4 untreated mice were dead, whereas, all the 4 mice treated with penicillin were alive. E. Chain called this result “a miracle” and later, the team published their work describing the production, purification and potency of penicillin in The Lancet in August 1940.

After the purification of penicillin, the team began its testing and clinical effectiveness on humans which turns out to be positive. Later, the simple discovery of penicillin and its clinical use turns out to save millions of lives during and after World War II.

Subsequently, in 1945, Alexander Fleming along with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain received the Nobel Prize for discovering penicillin and devising the method for its large-scale isolation and production.

The Sulfa Drugs

The Sulfa or sulfonamides were a class of drugs which was present and used before the discovery of penicillin. Although, these drugs were antibacterial but were not strictly antibiotics. As by definitions antibiotics must be made by microorganisms or at least by any living organisms. Very first sulfonamides were introduced in the 1930s and immediately it created a major impact in treating wounds.

It was discovered by the Germans in the year when Hitler came to the power. Soon, myriad of its forms were produced by hundreds of manufacturers and it was chiefly used by Germans and its supporting nations in the World War II. Ironically, in 1943, sulfonamides were used to save Winston Churchill (the man who saved Europe from Nazi Germany in World War II) who was suffering from pneumonia.

Sir Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Churchill

Shortly after its introduction, the Sulfa drugs were eclipsed by the newer, stronger and more effective antibiotic known as penicillin. However, sulfa drugs were not edged out entirely by penicillin. Even today, some of its derivatives are used to treat certain infections despite having a wide range of available antibiotics.

Penicillin and the World War II

In World War II, the Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy) relied on Sulfa drugs and fought without the penicillin. Whereas, the allied powers like USA, UK, and other countries used penicillin as their main antibacterial drugs.

SoldiersIt was Florey and Heatley who initiated the effort for bulk production of penicillin knowing its advantages over sulfa drugs. They were successful in isolating more productive strains of penicillin secreting mold in the USA during World War II. They also created the impressive scientific network which helped the military by providing them with high-quality commercial grade penicillin. Within 5 years of time span, this network was producing thousands-gallon tanks of highly refined penicillin.

Undoubtedly, penicillin was the more potent drug then the sulfa derivatives which helped in reducing the battle casualties. It also played a significant role in the recovery of manpower of allied military forces which helped them to win the war and more importantly to save lives.

In the end, this all brings me to several interesting scenarios. Imagine, if Dr. Fleming wouldn’t have left his Petri dishes uncovered near the window? Or what if he hadn’t dropped the idea of purifying penicillin from the mold? Or what would have happened if Penicillin wouldn’t have been discovered during the World War II? Or assume the situation where instead of UK and USA, if the Germans were successful in discovering penicillin…

Penicillin might be one of the greatest accidental discoveries ever happened which probably saved the humankind but it’s also true that accident happens only as the result when someone tries to find any solutions.

For Further Reading

3 Phases of Biotechnology: The HIstory