Who discovered the first antibiotics

How Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin

A coincidence led Alexander Fleming to develop penicillin on September 28, 1928. The era of antibiotics can begin

Alexander Fleming discovers green mold

Sometimes miracles happen by accident. Or even by a little sloppiness. This is what happened in 1928 at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. In September 1928, the Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) returned to his laboratory from the summer holidays. There he came across a Petri dish with a moldy bacterial culture; before leaving, Fleming dealt with the pathogen Staphylococcus aureus experimented, and the jar remained unwashed on a laboratory bench.

He is amazed to see that a tiny amount of green mold has destroyed the bacteria. He succeeds in extracting the bactericidal substance from the mold, which he calls penicillin.

Soldiers survive - thanks to penicillin

Sometimes miracles take a little longer. At first, Fleming's publications hardly receive any attention. It was not until the Second World War that his epochal discovery made its breakthrough. A research team in Oxford, led by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, discovered in animal experiments how amazingly powerful penicillin is, even against aggressive, normally deadly bacteria. It is immediately clear to the researchers that penicillin will play an important role in war medicine.

However, it is extremely difficult to produce sufficient quantities of this wonder substance. The US military is involved in the search for a strain of fungus that produces large amounts of penicillin, collecting soil samples from around the world.

It is said that the super mold is found in a moldy bowler hat in front of the institute. The problem of quantity was finally solved when the Americans developed a method of cultivating the mushroom by means of fermentation.

The first major field trials took place on the battlefields of North Africa in 1943 - with spectacular success. Soldiers who were previously amputated by doctors or who died of gangrene survive - thanks to penicillin. From 1944 onwards, the USA increased production to such an extent that the entire civilian population could eventually be supplied.

Penicillin is soon seen as a miracle drug

In Europe, on the other hand, there is still a shortage, after the end of the war the life-saving agent becomes contraband in the destroyed cities - the film “The Third Man” is about the black market trade in stolen and (life-threatening) stretched penicillin.

In the second half of the 20th century, penicillin is considered a miracle cure, is one of the greatest innovations in medical history, and saves countless human lives. Fleming's fortuitous discovery revolutionizes the treatment of infections that doctors had previously found difficult or impossible to tackle - such as bacterial pneumonia, scarlet fever, syphilis or tetanus.

But the success also has its downsides, the "miracle effect" of antibiotics has led to escalating use over the years. Doctors prescribe them too quickly and too often, in factory farming they are spread across the board.

The result: more and more resistant pathogens develop against antibiotics, the weapon becomes blunt. Today researchers are forced to develop more and more effective variants. As early as 1945, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Fleming warns, if we use this remedy irresponsibly, we will lose it again.