Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2008: Great Britons

Auntibiotics: the BBC, penicillin, and the second world war

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 12 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2746
  1. Gilbert Shama, senior lecturer
  1. 1Department of Chemical Engineering, Loughborough University, Loughborough LE11 3TU
  1. g.shama{at}
  • Accepted 27 October 2008

Gilbert Shama considers the BBC’s dissemination of the news about penicillin during the second world war

Alexander Fleming published his seminal paper on penicillin in 1929, but the transformation of penicillin into a useful therapeutic agent was to take its virtual rediscovery, some 10 years later, by Howard Florey and his coworkers at Oxford University. The story that followed Florey’s entry into the picture was a compelling race against time. Additionally it had the obvious propaganda value of what was, initially, a British success story at a time when there was little good news from the war front. The role of the BBC in disseminating this story has hitherto been overlooked, and the records, though fragmentary in places, add a new dimension to the early history of penicillin.

Broadcasts in English

The first BBC radio broadcast dealing specifically with penicillin was transmitted on 4 September 1942 in a programme entitled Ariel in Wartime. The broadcast explained in quite conventional terms what penicillin was, how it was produced, and its potency against bacterial pathogens, but the associated correspondence—unfortunately incomplete—makes for more interesting reading. An internal BBC memo of 1 September said: “There is a good deal of disputed priority involved, the point being that Wright’s nominee, Professor Fleming, made the discovery but never followed it up and the actual work has all been done by the Professor of Pathology at Oxford with the help and direction of the MRC [Medical Research Council]”—which all reads very much like a justification for crediting Florey. The “disputed priority” was being played out in the letters pages of the Times. A leading article on penicillin had appeared on 27 August and Sir Almroth Wright (Fleming’s boss) saw an opportunity to gain publicity for St Mary’s, and wrote a letter that was published on 1 September. In …

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