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Student Question: Penicillin


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The credit for discovering penicillin must go to Alexander Fleming as it was he who, by chance, came across its existence. Fleming was working his way through a series of glass plates that had previously been coated with a bacteria when he noticed that one of the plates had a mould growing on it, in the shape of a ring. The mould was free of the bacteria that had been growing on the glass plate. He spent some time investigating what the cause of this was and came to the conclusion that the staphyloccus bacteria (which is the bacteria that had been growing there originally) had been killed off by something. Fleming developed his research a little further, discovering that the mould killed off other forms of bacteria and that the mould did not harm small animals it was fed to in tests. The mould was named peniccilin and Fleming moved onto other things. Therefore Fleming is the man who ought to be credited with its discovery.

However the issue of mass production is an area where credit lay elsewhere. Flemings findings were basically shelved for 10 years. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain began researching Flemings findings at Oxford University. They managed to work out what exactly killed the bacteria (penicillin) and developed a means of producing it as a drug. In 1941 it was tested on a patient. Though the patient died it was clear that the drug had begun to work - it was the lack of its availablity in needed quantities rather than its effect that was the problem. Florey and Chain can therefore be credited for enabling a means of extracting peniccilin from the mould in a format that was usable by doctors.

asa result of their work t was obvious that the drug could save lots of lives. The problem was that it couldn't be produced in the quantities needed and the resources were simply not available in Europe to develop the procedures (due to the Second World War). Florey and Chain were able to convince the Rockefeller institute in America to assist them in their research. US entry into the war in December 1941 then prompted a larger investment in the development of the drug and its production, to the point where it was available in vast quantities by D Day (June 6th 1944).

Therefore I'd credit Fleming with discovering it, Florey and Chain for developing his theory and the US government for funding its mass production - though the work of Florey, Chain and other scientists was critical to this process.

There are other people who were involved in this, of course. for a more detailed explanation of the whole process, read this webpage. Its very detailed!

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