Tag Archives: Antibiotics

Wonderful Things: Penicillin Powder

Laura Body from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

Inside this little bottle is a substance which marked a huge turning point in medical history: Penicillin. The first antibiotic to be discovered and mass-produced, it appeared to be a wonder drug which enabled doctors to effectively treat infection for the first time in history.

Glass bottle of penicillin powder, 1943

Glass bottle of penicillin powder, 1943
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

In 1928, Dr Alexander Fleming returned from holiday to find a mould growing in one of the Petri dishes in his lab. Upon closer inspection under a microscope, he discovered the mould was preventing the growth of bacteria in the dish, and he came to a remarkable conclusion: the Penicillium mould could potentially be used to fight infection.

It was 10 years later that Fleming’s discovery was picked up and worked on by a team at Oxford University. The team, in collaboration with American scientists, developed Fleming’s discovery into an effective drug which could be mass produced. This crucial breakthrough came during World War II, when vast quantities of the lifesaving antibiotic were desperately needed for treating a range of war-related infections.

The substance in our bottle is some of the first penicillin to have been manufactured, clinically tested and used by the military. In an effort to begin mass producing the drug, a solution was made by a chemical company and then sent on a truck to a team in Oxford University. Their job was to take the weak solution, extract the valuable penicillin from it and purify it.  The browny-yellow colour is due to remaining impurities in the sample.

Advertisement for penicillin production from Life magazine, 1944

Advertisement for penicillin production from Life magazine, 1944
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

However, as Fleming correctly predicted in his Nobel Prize Lecture, the misuse of Penicillin would cause harmful microbes to become resistant to the antibiotic.

Today, antibiotic resistance poses a serious threat to progress, as people are dying from bacterial infections which used to be treatable. It is thought 25 million courses of antibiotics are incorrectly prescribed every year in the UK for ailments such as coughs and colds that don’t require the use of this valuable treatment. To combat this growing issue, the Longitude Prize set a challenge to design a test that will help healthcare professionals administer antibiotics correctly, with a £10 million prize for the winning idea.

Do you think the development of Penicillin was the most important medical breakthrough in history, or are there other more important advances?

To see this object and discover more about the story of penicillin, visit the Churchill’s Scientists exhibition, open until March 2016.

Alexander Fleming in his Lab, December 1943.

1920: Penicillin discovery

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1920s, the discovery of Penicillin.

It’s hard to imagine life without penicillin. This drug, which many of us take for granted, has saved millions of lives since its discovery by Alexander Fleming less than a century ago.

Alexander Fleming in his Lab, December 1943.

Alexander Fleming and Penicillin.
Image Credit: Credit © Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society said, “Just imagine a world without antibiotics, a world where infections that would barely keep you off work or school today, would have actually killed you. That was the world that existed just a little over 70 years ago.” listen to ‘Sir Paul Nurse’ on Audioboo

Today, penicillin continues to fight against infectious diseases. Yet who would have thought you could create such a phenomenal medicine from mould? Fleming, a bacteriologist working at St. Mary’s Medical School in London, observed that certain bacteria were killed by mould when he saw a bacteria-free circle forming around a culture dish used to grow microbes, and by 1944 the drug was being mass-produced and proved a powerful weapon in fighting diseases such as pneumonia and syphilis.

Thanks to Penicillin, we lead much longer, healthier lives which is why it deserves your vote as the Greatest British Innovation.