We have Alexander Fleming to thank for countless saved lives. Fleming first became interested in fighting bacteria in France during the First World War. Upon trying to treat wounded soldiers, he realized there was no way to treat some infections. Then back home in London after the war, on September 3, 1928, Fleming was cleaning up his messy laboratory. He came across glass plates that had contained staphyloccus bacteria for other research he was doing.
One of these plates happened to be growing mold due to a bit of disregard on the good professor’s part. Fleming noticed that there was no bacteria growth around the mold. He concluded that some substance in the mold was killing off the bacteria. He published a paper in 1929 about the possible effects of what he called penicillin. But, Fleming was unable to continue his research on this life saving discovery due to lack of resources.
Then in 1938, a professor of pathology at Oxford University, Howard Florey, picked up Fleming’s 1929 paper and was intrigued. Florey and another researcher Ernst Chain had the large research department and funding that Fleming undoubtedly would have loved ten years prior. Florey and Chain experimented more with penicillin and had used it real world cases by 1942.
The problem with penicillin was not that it didn’t work – it worked fantastically – but that it was hard to produce in mass quantities. Oxford University biochemist Dr. Norman Heatley created a device out of bedpans and bottles he found around his hospital that succeeded in making a larger amount of penicillin. Still, even the amount he was able to produce ran out before the patient he was using it on fully recovered.
In 1941 Drs. Heatley and Florey travelled to the U.S. to meet with top biologists with the Department of Agriculture to start what would become the first big push toward how to mass produce penicillin. World War II gave the world a pressing reason to produce as much penicillin possible. By D-Day, June 6, 1944, American, British, and Russian governments and drug companies had found ways to produce enough penicillin to treat every allied soldier’s infected injury.
In 1945, Florey, Fleming, and Chain won a Nobel Prize for their contribution to what had come to be known as “the wonder drug.” And rightly so. Although there is no accurate estimate of how many lives penicillin has saved in its 65 year history, there is only one term to describe the number: countless.