Prior to the discovery of penicillins, even minor infections could be fatal. From paper cuts to childbirth, bacterial infection had the potential to kill.

Sir Alexender fleming and the lab which he discovered the penicillin

Penicillins are antibiotics that are used to treat bacterial infections. They work by killing the bacteria or preventing their growth. There are various types of penicillins, each of which is used to treat a different type of infection.

But did you know, the discovery of life changing penicillin was totally an accident or in other words lazy work?

One fine morning in 1928, Alexender Fleming returned to his lab to find mould growing on a Petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria. He noticed that the mould was restricting the growth of the bacteria around it. He quickly discovered that the mould produced a self-defense chemical capable of killing bacteria. He named the substance Penicillin.

Discovorey of a mould that prevented the growth of bacteria is a big deal, right? but to Fleming’s shock, his peers showed very little interest in his work.

But Franklin did not give up; he enlisted the help and support of several chemists, all of whom were leaders in their fields, to help purify penicillin from the mould. They were all unsuccessful.

“The production of penicillin for therapeutic purposes is almost impossible,” said Professor Harold Raistrick, a biochemist and expert in fungal substances enlisted by Fleming.

And Fleming’s discovery was credited as a labrotory curiosity, and Fleming soon abandoned attempts to purify it.

Problems with Penicillin

G.E.Breen, a fellow Chelsea Arts Club member, questioned Flelming on his discovery, “I was just wondering if you thought it would ever be possible to put the stuff to use. Could I, for example, use it?” which Franklin responded “I’m not sure if it’s too unstable. It will need to be purified, which I cannot do on my own.”

The rising demand of Penicillin

Nearly ten years after Fleming’s discovery, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain unearthed Fleming’s work and assembled a team of scientists to work solely on the ‘Penicillin Project,’ while researching microorganisms and the substances they produced.

Although Fleming’s work was accepted, the team struggled immensely to purify penicilling from its original mould due to personality clashes among senior members of the team, as well as the complexities and scientific challenges of the project.

After three years of trial and error, the team successfully developed an inefficient process that produced pure penicilling. The team finally had enough penicillin to begin animal trials. In 1940, eight mice were infected with deadly streptococci bacteria. Only the four of them survived.

To their luck, the paper they published detailing the experiment ignited immediate interest, but there was one catch: producing just a fingernail of penicilin required gallons of mould broth. As a result, the team resorted to storing the broth in bedpans, milk churns, and even bathtubs.

Special fermentation vessels were soon developed to hold the liquid.

Vessels to hold penicillin
Vessels to hold penicillin

Six women, dubbed the “Penicillin girls,” were hired to tend to the fermenting broth and harvest a few preciopus miligrams of penicillin from it once a week. The Oxford laboratory had now become a pencillin factory, thanks to the successful but slow production of penicillin.

With the first human trial of penicillin, the problems with slow production became apparent.

Need for Penicillin

Albert Alexander, a 43-year-old police officer, developed a potentially fatal infection as a result of a cut. With the use of penicillin, he showed signs of recovery, but the penicillin supply quickly ran out, and Albert’s infection returned, and he died five days later.

Unpleasent way to extract penicillin

With an abundant supply of Penicillin, the team was forced to resort to unappealing means to meet their massive demand. Around 80% of a penicillin dose is excreted from our bodies in urine, which can be extracted and recycled. Dr. Ethel Florey, a clinical trial supervisor, was regularly observed on the ‘P- Patrol,’ cycling to patients to collect their urine.

“One of the earliest penicillin samples, believed to have been isolated form the urnie of a patient given the antibiotic.”

With penicillin’s increasing success and demand, the Oxford team approached pharmaceutical companies about manufacturing penicillin. However, due to the ongoing Second World War, no British industry was capable of developing a new mass production process.

So the team began to look elsewhere, and in June 1941, Florey decided to take penicillin to the United States in the hope of finding a way to scale up production.

Similarly to British pharmaceutical companies, US pharmaceutical companies were initially hesitant to commit to large-scale penicillin production. However, by the end of 1941, the United States had entered World War II, and demand for penicillin had skyrocketed.

By 1946, penicillin became availble for the first time to the UK for public use. The mass availability of penicillin transformed medicine worldwide and ushered in the age of antibiotics.

However, bacteria have evolved resistance to the original penicillin as well as many other antibiotics. Scientists are now racing to discover and develop new antibiotics.


After reading about the dicovery of penicillin, you might like reading about 12 Archaeological Findings That Amazed Us Over The Years