Tag Archives: health

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.

Wonderful Things: The Drug Castle

Kate Davis, a Learning Resources Project Developer, discovers the story behind one of our more unusual objects.

The fifth floor of the Science Museum is a fascinating area, full of gory and often unusual paraphernalia related to the history of medicine. One of the more unusual objects lurking in this gallery is the Drug Castle.

How long did this take to build?

A castle constructed from pills, capsules and medicine containers.

Our knowledge of medicine and how civilisations have treated illness and disease stretches all the way back to the earliest writings on the subject from Ancient Egypt. However, the ways in which people have treated illness has not changed very much over the centuries. It is only during the last 200 years that scientific developments have gathered pace and enabled doctors to make huge breakthroughs in treatments. It is often easy for us, living in the 21st Century, to forget that as little as 100 years ago there was no penicillin, nobody knew the cause of rickets and there was no vaccine for tuberculosis. 

Now, we can mass produce a whole range of pills and potions for a variety of different ailments that had previously been untreatable. All of the syringes, pill bottles and tablets used to create the Drug Castle are real and it is a brilliant visualisation of how central the use of drugs has become to the treatment of illness in the developed world. However, this shift in how we treat disease does not come without its controversy.

The Drug Castle itself is a reminder of this as it was created to feature in a poster campaign by the East London Health Project in 1978. This campaign aimed to raise questions about whether pharmaceutical companies were more interested in making money or making their medicines available to all. Health care is extremely costly and is frequently an issue that is considered and debated by governments worldwide as they try to provide the best health care they can for their citizens with the funds that they have available to them.

There are also significant issues with the effectiveness of the drugs that are prescribed by doctors.  One of the primary examples of this is with antibiotics, that when first manufactured, were very effective at treating infections, but now are less so because the bacteria has mutated so that antibiotics, such as penicillin, are not as useful. Therefore, in order to keep treating infection scientists will need to develop new drugs that can combat these more virulent illnesses.

Should we keep creating new drugs for antibiotic resistant bugs – or do we need to change the way we take medicines?