Views & Reviews Review of the week

Penicillin and a series of fortunate events

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39211.458333.4E (Published 17 May 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:1059
  1. Allen F Shaughnessy, director of curriculum development, Tufts University family medicine residency at Cambridge Health Alliance, Cambridge, MA, USA
  1. Allen.Shaughnessy{at}tufts.edu

    The story of penicillin takes in a dirty Petri dish, a refugee chemist, and a few human tears, finds Allen F Shaughnessy

    Like an impromptu relay race, a series of fortunate events and unlikely connections between the right people with the right knowledge in the right places gave the world penicillin. We owe our antibiotic armamentarium to a dirty Petri dish in Alexander Fleming's laboratory, a German refugee chemist, a rotten melon, and the rising popularity of soft drinks. And the whole process, in a sense, started with a few human tears.

    Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy, by medical historian Robert Bud, traces the development of penicillin from a chemical stumbled on by accident to an idea, or perhaps an ideal, that has led to a social revolution.

    This development began in 1929 when Fleming noticed a zone of inhibition around a colony of Penicillium mould on an agar plate of Staphylococcus. The story almost ended there, for Fleming could not simply siphon off the juice produced by the Penicillium mould and inject it into infected patients.

    The research …

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