It was early on a September morning in 1928 when a Scottish biologist called Fleming walked into his laboratory after a family holiday. He checked Petrie dishes that had been left on his bench for weeks in which he was growing cultures of staphylococci bacteria, and what he discovered next revolutionised modern medicine forever.
One of the cultures was contaminated with a mould, and the staphylococci nearest to it had been destroyed. He then grew a pure culture of the mould to discover that it produced a bacteria killing substance. He called it penicillin after the name of the mould genus penicillium.
So began decades of research and development in the use and manufacture of penicillin as an antibacterial agent for infectious wounds, blood poisoning, pneumonia and rheumatic fever. Mass production started after Pearl Harbour in 1941 and was very important during World War II in saving the lives of thousands of injured soldiers. Penicillin administered during the wait to see a surgeon (up to 14 hours) drastically reduced the risk of infection and increased the chance of survival.
Penicillin has been referred to as a miracle drug. Before the discovery of penicillin, seemingly minor injuries and illnesses could lead to death.Not only has the use of penicillin saved lives, but the discovery was also the foundation for the development of further antibiotics, and indeed the pharmaceutical industry as a whole.
Penicillin is still commonly used today to treat ear, nose and throat infections, as well as respiratory infections. Today antibiotic use has allowed the development of life giving surgical procedures, including open heart surgery and organ transplants.
It is impossible to say how many lives penicillin has saved, or what our lives would be like today without it. With an estimation of over 200 million lives saved since its discovery, there is no doubt that penicillin revolutionized medicine and changed the world.