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Breaking the mould: the history of penicillin

In the realm of medicine, few advancements have had as profound an impact as penicillin. Before this discovery, bacterial infections were often life-threatening. In the early 20th century, patients had limited options for treatment, and infections could quickly spread with devastating consequences. The discovery and mass production of this brand new antibiotic revolutionised the treatment of bacterial infections, saving countless lives and shaping the course of modern medicine. 

Alexander Fleming: An Accidental Pioneer

In 1928, Scottish scientist and History Hero Alexander Fleming discovered a mould growing in one of his petri dishes. To his surprise, there was a clean ring around the mould. It appeared that whatever the mould was, it had killed the bacteria surrounding it. This moment would become a hugely important one in medical history. Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin’s antibiotic properties!

Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and the Path to Mass Production during WORLD WAR II

The discovery of penicillin coincided with a critical period—the outbreak of WORLD WAR II was looming. As soldiers faced the challenges of the battlefield, infections posed a significant threat to their lives. Although penicillin was a potential magic bullet, mass production was not going to be an easy feat. 

The journey from discovery to mass production required a collective effort by a team of brilliant SCIENTISTS. Along came Howard Florey and Ernst Chain. Florey was an Australian born scientist who studied at the University of Oxford, where he met German-born biochemist Ernst Chain. 

In 1939, Florey and Chain along with their colleagues began the work to isolate and purify penicillin. Have you heard of the ‘Penicillin Girls’? Ruth Callow, Claire Inayat, Betty Cooke, Peggy Gardner, Megan Lancaster, and Patricia McKegney were part of a team recruited by Florey to farm the penicillin in laboratory conditions. 

Florey and Chain’s breakthroughs in production techniques made it possible to produce penicillin on a large scale, eventually revolutionising battlefield medicine as well as antibiotics across the world. 

With the widespread availability of penicillin, the treatment of bacterial infections was forever transformed. Previously deadly diseases, such as pneumonia, sepsis, and syphilis, could now be effectively treated with this groundbreaking antibiotic. The impact of penicillin extended far beyond the war front, improving healthcare outcomes for people around the globe.

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