Medical Milestones

Antibiotics: the epitome of a wonder drug

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 04 January 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:s6
  1. Robert Bud, principal curator of medicine
  1. 1Science Museum, London SW7 2DD

    The discovery of antibiotics not only heralded a dramatically new approach to infection control and health care but also enabled nations to prosper and overturned the concept of health as a moral duty

    Antibiotics can truly be considered the epitome of the 20th century's “wonder drugs.” This term was widely used in the 1950s, even in official documents, expressing the enthusiasm of patients, doctors, and policy makers for drugs that transformed once mortally feared bacterial infections into curable conditions.

    Penicillin is the iconic antibiotic. Its introduction into clinical practice was widely celebrated and was the culmination of individual achievements, long running trends in science, and a supportive environment. In 1929 Alexander Fleming, at St Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, reported his observation that the culture medium on which a penicillium mould had grown attacked certain bacteria. However, chemists and bacteriologists, then working largely separately, failed to isolate the active substance in the mould juice. Only in 1940 was the isolation achieved, at Oxford, where Howard Florey had created a multidisciplinary team. The team's efforts were sustained by the interest and talent of, among others, Ernst Chain, a German refugee, and Norman Heatley, who developed key techniques for growing the mould and isolating the drug. But the financial support of the …

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