Antibiotics: A History

Antibiotics are a huge part of modern life. If you’re feeling under the weather, you might go to the doctor and be prescribed some if you have a bacterial infection. But where did they come from? How long have we been using them?



To answer this question, we have to look back to the early 20th century, although there is evidence that people in ancient times had a good idea about how to treat bacterial infections:

  • The Chinese used mouldy soybean curd on furuncles and carbuncles
  • The Greeks used mould from bread to treat wounds and infections
  • Babylonian doctors used a mix of frog bile and sour milk to treat eye infections

I think we can see a bit of a theme emerging here…mould is playing a big part in treating infections…

If you fast forward to the early 1920’s, we meet Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist and botanist who was trying to find a way to combat sepsis after seeing the results of infected wounds during the First World War. In 1922, he discovered lysozyme, an enzyme that breaks down bacterial walls, when he was working over petri dishes and his nose leaked some mucus before clearing the bacteria in the surrounding area. This was the first of his ‘accidental discoveries’.


By 1928, Fleming was busy studying staphylococci at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, and he had gained a bit of a reputation for being a great, yes distinctly untidy researcher. On the 3rd of September 1928, Fleming had returned from his August holiday with his family and found his pile of cultured petri dishes, which he had left on one side of the bench before he went away. When he inspected the dishes he found that they had been contaminated with mould and transferred them to a tray of lysol in order to kill the bacteria and reuse them. But at this point, Fleming’s former assistant Merlin Pryce arrived (having transferred to another lab) and Fleming complained to him about his extra work load, showing Pryce the contaminated pile of plates.

As he picked up one dish from on top of the pile, Fleming noticed that the Staphylococcus aureus colonies surrounding the mould had seemingly died off, whilst the colonies further away were fine.

“That’s funny” Fleming famously remarked, before Pryce reminded him “that’s how you discovered lysozyme”.

After this, Fleming grew the mould for several weeks and consulted with mycologist C.J La Touche (whose research into asthma involved using moulds, which were believed to have floated up into Flemings lab) and they determined that the species of mould was a member of the Penicillium family, hence why the antibiotic is called penicillin. Fleming carried on testing the mould on other bacteria, and found that it killed other bacteria that cause pneumonia, meningitis and scarlet fever (Gram positive bacteria) as well as Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the species behind gonorrhoea.

In 1929, Fleming published his findings of his wide ranging, safe to humans, ‘miracle drug’….but nobody was interested.

It took another 11 years for the benefits of penicillin to be properly noticed and used. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain worked out how to correctly synthesis the mould into a stable and usable form. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, penicillin entered the world of mass production and by 1944, there was enough penicillin to treat every wounded person in the Allied Forces.


Because of his ‘accidental discovery’, Fleming changed the world of modern medicine. In recognition for his work, he was knighted in 1944, before receiving the Nobel Prize for Medicine (an honour shared with Florey and Chain) in 1945. Nicely done Fleming.

Coming soon…how antibiotics work, the problems that we now face with them and what the future could hold for us!




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