Taking Pharmaceutical Courses? Learn How Penicillin Made Pharmaceutical History

Since its discovery nearly a century ago, penicillin has been used around the world as the choice antibiotic of physicians for treating all kinds of bacterial illnesses and infections. The effectiveness of this antibiotic class-type remains unmatched, unique in its ability to inhibit various types of harmful bacterial strains. It’s also been credited as the interventive cure to many once deadly diseases.

So how did this antibiotic, considered to this day as no less than miraculous, come to be? As it happens—quite by accident. We take a closer look at the intriguing history of penicillin here for those taking pharmaceutical training.

The Incredible Discovery That Forever Changed the World of Medicine

The discovery of penicillin took place in London, England in 1928. At the time, Scottish physician and microbiologist Dr. Alexander Fleming was just getting back to work in the Inoculation Department of St. Mary’s Hospital after having been away on vacation. Upon examining some uncovered petri dish samples of staphylococcus culture he’d been studying, he quickly discovered that the dishes had been contaminated by mold spores during his absence. To Fleming’s amazement under closer microscope inspection, the Penicillium fungi appeared to have prevented the growth of the staphylococci bacteria. 

Fleming was amazed to discover that the mold ‘Penicillium notatum’ prevented bacteria growth

From this discovery, Fleming set forth to experimentation, growing more of the mold and introducing it to the bacteria again. It took just a few short weeks to confirm his original findings, with the result of his experimentation perhaps best concluded by Fleming himself, saying: “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”

How the ‘Bacteria Killer’ Was First Used to Treat Deadly Diseases

Those taking pharmaceutical quality assurance and quality control courses will no doubt be interested in understanding the relevance of this discovery. As the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin offered doctors a treatment option, for the very first time, that could fully cure many types of illnesses and deadly diseases deriving from certain bacterial strains. It took about ten more years of further refinement after Fleming’s initial discovery to launch the antibiotic as a treatment option, resulting from an unprecedented collaborative effort in development between the United States and Great Britain. 

As efforts ramped up for mass production in the early 1940s, penicillin was used successfully during World War II to help treat infections occurring in wounded soldiers, serving to prevent many amputations and deaths. By the end of the war, penicillin would soon become widely used around the world to successfully treat many of the serious illnesses caused by different types of bacteria that had taken countless lives before the antibiotic’s introduction, including:

  • Meningitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Syphilis
  • Gonorrhea
  • Blood infections
  • Endocarditis

It is also used to this day to treat common bacterial infections of the sinuses, middle ear, bladder, kidneys, intestines, stomach, and more.

Penicillin allows doctors to treat all kinds of serious infections caused by various types of bacteria

A Look at How Penicillin Is Used Today for Those Taking Pharmaceutical Courses

Modern penicillin has been developed into many derivatives to extend its use. The many available penicillin types consist of five groups categorized according to the similar properties they possess and the specified types of bacteria they are used to inhibit, such as streptococci, H. influenzae, pneumococci, and many others. Those penicillin groups include:

  • Aminopenicillins
  • Antipseudomonal penicillins
  • Beta-lactamase inhibitors
  • Penicillinase resistant penicillins
  • Natural penicillins

Penicillin today is produced into subtypes for more effective treatment of various bacterial strains

The natural penicillin group includes Penicillin G, the type identified in 1928 by Fleming. The natural penicillin known as Penicillin V was also eventually isolated from the mold of Fleming’s early experimentation. The four other penicillin groups represent semi-synthetic antibiotic products that have been modified from their naturally occurring properties. 

The result of these modifications has allowed these types of antibiotics to be taken orally. Many of these antibiotic products are also more resistant to penicillinase, an enzyme produced by some bacteria known to lower the effectiveness of penicillin. By generating these modified groups, drug developers have greatly widened the scope and effectiveness of penicillin, allowing doctors more options for combating a much wider range of bacteria strains.  

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