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Medicine: the Discovery of Penicillin

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 There have been many impressive advancements in the field of chemistry in the past 100 years, such as the discovery of DNA, the contraceptive pill and polythene. However, it is widely believed that the most impactful advancement was the discovery and development of penicillin, one of the first antibiotic drugs that are effective on multiple types of infections.

The discovery of this antibacterial drug was accidentally made by Sir Alexander Fleming, a bacteriologist at St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1928, Fleming returned from a two week holiday to find that one of the petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus, a bacteria that causes a variety of ailments, was acting strangely. The petri dish was full of the bacteria, except for the area around a small piece of mould. The species of mould was from the penicillium genus and was killing the bacteria. Fleming later discovered that this species of mould could also kill many other types of gram-positive bacteria, such as meningococcus and the diphtheria bacillus. Fleming soon found that he was unable to continue his research as he lacked the equipment.

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In the late 1930s, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey, two Oxford scientists began to attempt to isolate the antibacterial compound with a specialised team. After success in an experiment where mice were cured of a type of Streptococcus, the Oxford team published their findings in The Lancet, in August 1940. After having purified enough penicillin, the team then began to test its clinical effectiveness on humans. In February 1941, the first person to be treated with penicillin had a clear improvement in their condition caused by a serious infection in the following 24 hours. Unfortunately, they had very little penicillin and it ran out quickly. The man died a few weeks later of his infection. More tests took place and all other human subjects saw an improvement in their condition and were able to finish their treatment. The team then published their findings, and demand for the drug rose quickly.

Penicillin was incredibly difficult to mass-produce in Great Britain at the time due to World War Two and the lack of supplies that they could afford, so they turned to colleagues in America. In 1941, the USA joined the war effort and the American government gave $80,000,000 to fund research such as the development of penicillin. By 1943, penicillin was being mass-produced as it is today.

Some argue that the discovery of DNA as the genetic material in cells was the most impactful discovery in science because it proved Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin’s evolution theories. The discovery and understanding of DNA changed the world of science and the way we perceive many aspects of life.

The discovery and understanding of DNA were certainly groundbreaking, however, without the discovery of penicillin, the techniques that were used in its discovery and production would not have been used. Without these techniques researchers never would have discovered many other antibiotics in the following years such as streptomycin, erythromycin, vancomycin and chloramphenicol. Many thousands of lives have been saved by the discovery of penicillin and the antibiotics that followed its discovery, which is why it is largely considered the most impactful discovery in chemistry in the last 100 years.

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