Wednesday September 15, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Penicillin

On this Day:

In 1928, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin while studying influenza.

Penicillins (P, PCN or PEN) are a group of antibiotics originally obtained from Penicillium moulds, principally P. chrysogenum and P. rubens. Most penicillins in clinical use are chemically synthesised from naturally-produced penicillins. A number of natural penicillins have been discovered, but only two purified compounds are in clinical use: penicillin G (intravenous use) and penicillin V (given by mouth). Penicillins were among the first medications to be effective against many bacterial infections caused by staphylococci and streptococci. They are members of the β-lactam antibiotics. They are still widely used today for different bacterial infections, though many types of bacteria have developed resistance following extensive use.

About 10% of people report that they are allergic to penicillin; however, up to 90% of this group may not actually be allergic. Serious allergies only occur in about 0.03%. Those who are allergic to penicillin are most often given cephalosporin C (another β-lactam antibiotic) because there is only 10% crossover in allergy between the penicillins and cephalosporins.

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming as a crude extract of P. rubens. Fleming’s student Cecil George Paine was the first to successfully use penicillin to treat an eye infection (ophthalmia neonatorum) in 1930. The purified compound (penicillin F) was isolated in 1940 by a research team led by Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain at the University of Oxford. Fleming first used the purified penicillin to treat streptococcal meningitis in 1942. For the discovery, Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Florey and Chain.

Several semisynthetic penicillins are effective against a broader spectrum of bacteria: these include the antistaphylococcal penicillins, aminopenicillins and the antipseudomonal penicillins.

Starting in the late 19th century there had been reports of the antibacterial properties of Penicillium mould, but scientists were unable to discern what process was causing the effect. Scottish physician Alexander Fleming at St Mary’s Hospital in London (now part of Imperial College) was the first to show that Penicillium rubens had antibacterial properties. On 3 September 1928 he observed that fungal contamination of a bacterial culture (Staphylococcus aureus) appeared to kill the bacteria. He confirmed this observation with a new experiment on 28 September 1928. He published his experiment in 1929, and called the antibacterial substance (the fungal extract) penicillin.

C. J. La Touche identified the fungus as Penicillium rubrum (later reclassified by Charles Thomas P. notatum and P. chrysogenum, but later corrected as P. rubens). Fleming expressed initial optimism that penicillin would be a useful antiseptic, because of its high potency and minimal toxicity in comparison to other antiseptics of the day, and noted its laboratory value in the isolation of Bacillus influenzae (now called Haemophilus influenzae).

Fleming did not convince anyone that his discovery was important. This was largely because penicillin was so difficult to isolate that its development as a drug seemed impossible. It is speculated that had Fleming been more successful at making other scientists interested in his work, penicillin would possibly have been developed years earlier.

The importance of his work has been recognized by the placement of an International Historic Chemical Landmark at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum in London on November 19, 1999.

In 1930, Cecil George Paine, a pathologist at the Royal Infirmary in Sheffield, successfully treated ophthalmia neonatorum, a gonococcal infection in infants, with penicillin (fungal extract) on November 25, 1930.

In 1940, Australian scientist Howard Florey (later Baron Florey) and a team of researchers (Ernst Chain, Edward Abraham, Arthur Duncan Gardner, Norman Heatley, Margaret Jennings, Jean Orr-Ewing and Arthur Gordon Sanders) at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford made progress in making concentrated penicillin from fungal culture broth that showed both in vitro and in vivo bactericidal action. In 1941, they treated a policeman, Albert Alexander, with a severe face infection; his condition improved, but then supplies of penicillin ran out and he died. Subsequently, several other patients were treated successfully. In December 1942, survivors of the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston were the first burn patients to be successfully treated with penicillin.

The first successful use of pure penicillin was when Fleming treated Harry Lambert of a fatal infection of the nervous system (streptococcal meningitis) in 1942. By that time the Oxford team could produce only a small amount. Florey willingly gave the only available sample to Fleming. Lambert showed improvement from the very next day of the treatment, and was completely cured within a week. Fleming published his clinical trial in The Lancet in 1943. Following the medical breakthrough the British War Cabinet set up the Penicillin Committee on 5 April 1943 that led to projects for mass production.

As the medical application was established, the Oxford team found that it was impossible to produce usable amounts in their laboratory. Failing to persuade the British government, Florey and Heatley travelled to the US in June 1941 with their mould samples in order to interest the US government for large-scale production. They approached the USDA Northern Regional Research Laboratory (NRRL, now the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research) at Peoria, Illinois, where facilities for large-scale fermentations were established. Mass culture of the mould and search for better moulds immediately followed.

On March 14, 1942, the first patient was treated for streptococcal sepsis with US-made penicillin produced by Merck & Co. Half of the total supply produced at the time was used on that one patient, Anne Miller. By June 1942, just enough US penicillin was available to treat ten patients. In July 1943, the War Production Board drew up a plan for the mass distribution of penicillin stocks to Allied troops fighting in Europe. The results of fermentation research on corn steep liquor at the NRRL allowed the United States to produce 2.3 million doses in time for the invasion of Normandy in the spring of 1944. After a worldwide search in 1943, a mouldy cantaloupe in a Peoria, Illinois market was found to contain the best strain of mould for production using the corn steep liquor process. Pfizer scientist Jasper H. Kane suggested using a deep-tank fermentation method for producing large quantities of pharmaceutical-grade penicillin. Large-scale production resulted from the development of a deep-tank fermentation plant by chemical engineer Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau. As a direct result of the war and the War Production Board, by June 1945, over 646 billion units per year were being produced.

G. Raymond Rettew made a significant contribution to the American war effort by his techniques to produce commercial quantities of penicillin, wherein he combined his knowledge of mushroom spawn with the function of the Sharples Cream Separator. By 1943, Rettew’s lab was producing most of the world’s penicillin. During World War II, penicillin made a major difference in the number of deaths and amputations caused by infected wounds among Allied forces, saving an estimated 12%–15% of lives. Availability was severely limited, however, by the difficulty of manufacturing large quantities of penicillin and by the rapid renal clearance of the drug, necessitating frequent dosing. Methods for mass production of penicillin were patented by Andrew Jackson Moyer in 1945. Florey had not patented penicillin, having been advised by Sir Henry Dale that doing so would be unethical.

Penicillin is actively excreted, and about 80% of a penicillin dose is cleared from the body within three to four hours of administration. Indeed, during the early penicillin era, the drug was so scarce and so highly valued that it became common to collect the urine from patients being treated, so that the penicillin in the urine could be isolated and reused. This was not a satisfactory solution, so researchers looked for a way to slow penicillin excretion. They hoped to find a molecule that could compete with penicillin for the organic acid transporter responsible for excretion, such that the transporter would preferentially excrete the competing molecule and the penicillin would be retained. The uricosuric agent probenecid proved to be suitable. When probenecid and penicillin are administered together, probenecid competitively inhibits the excretion of penicillin, increasing penicillin’s concentration and prolonging its activity. Eventually, the advent of mass-production techniques and semi-synthetic penicillins resolved the supply issues, so this use of probenecid declined. Probenecid is still useful, however, for certain infections requiring particularly high concentrations of penicillins.

After World War II, Australia was the first country to make the drug available for civilian use. In the U.S., penicillin was made available to the general public on March 15, 1945.

Fleming, Florey, and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of penicillin (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

What do you give a man who has everything? A shot of penicillin…

Second, a Song:

Horrible Histories is an educational entertainment franchise encompassing many media including books, magazines, audio books, stage shows, TV shows, and more.

In 2013, Lisa Edwards, UK publishing and commercial director of Scholastic Corporation, described Horrible Histories as one of the company’s “crown jewels”, and said it is at an “advanced stage of evolution”. She added: “We have covered every possible era that has a commercial outcome…We’re now in the era of the box set, annuals, newly presented editions and licensed products” (per Wikipedia).

Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming dealt a blow to bad bacteria when they gave us vaccination, immunisation and penicillin.  Thanks guys! (per

Sing Along With the Vaccination Song from Horrible Histories.  I hope  you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“The web is just another stunning point in the two-hundred-thousand-year history of human beings on earth. The taming of fire; the discovery of penicillin; the publication of ‘Jane Eyre’ – add anything you like.” – Ellen Ullman

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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