First Penicillin Patient
We take antibiotics for granted, many of us unaware that conditions treated with a quick dose of tablets might once have been life-threatening.
Rather unjustly Alexander Fleming ’s name is the one most readily associated with the first antibiotic exploited in medicine, penicillin. He did indeed have a Eureka moment in September 1928 when he noticed that stray Penicillium mould was apparently killing bacteria. He struggled to take the discovery any further, and it was Ernest Chain and Howard Florey (who shared a Nobel Prize with Fleming) who did the hard work, picking up the project in 1939.
Florey and Chain extracted and purified penicillin in their Oxford laboratories, despite the restrictions in terms of finance, personnel and equipment that WWII brought. After some initial trials on mice indicated the drug’s efficacy their next step was to try it on a human subject. Not knowing possible side effects, it was necessary to work with an otherwise terminal case.
That case was Albert Alexander, a police constable from Abingdon whose infection was such that he had no other hope. Accounts differ as to how Alexander became infected: either from falling into a rose bush while pruning, sustaining a bad cut on his mouth from a thorn; or injured during a bombing raid on Southampton , where he had been seconded. The constable was injected with penicillin over four days starting on February 12, and showed a remarkable recovery. But in spite the team even extracting penicillin residue from his urine to eke out the supply it was soon exhausted. His infection took over again, and he died in mid-March. The way forward was clear, however, and production of penicillin accelerated in time for some to be taken with the troops on D-Day .
Thanks in part to patients ending treatments before antibiotics have completed their task, some harmful bacteria are developing ever-greater resistance to the drugs. We risk a return to pre-penicillin days.
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