Here at HRW, we consider ourselves an innovative and future-thinking bunch. However, we recently enjoyed a “lunch and learn” session that was a bit of a change in pace: a journey back in time to explore the story of penicillin. As we learned, this really was the true innovation of its time…

Marie-Louise Kerr from CuratorWithoutMuseum.com has researched and collated how this commonplace treatment of numerous infections came to be, armed with a 80 year old bedpan which played its own role in the development of the drug.

Her talk begins with noting Alexander Fleming being the first scientist to observe penicillin mould in the 1920’s, but there was a lot more work conducted by others to develop it to the drug it is today; and Marie-Louise focused on all the significant work of the many other scientists involved.

Just 10 miles down the road from HRW’s Wallingford headquarters in the UK, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley set to work in their Oxford-based lab at the beginning of the second world war. In 1940, they carried out the very first test on eight mice: four received penicillin (and survived following exposure to pathogens) and the four who did not receive penicillin died. Incredibly, this early, simple trial was enough to justify taking the drug to human trial, but we do have to recognise that times were very different then!

‘Where does the bedpan fit in?’ I hear you cry. These trials were conducted during the second world war, when resources were sparse. The nation was on a ‘make do and mend’ ethos, so biscuit tins, sheep dip cans and bed pans were makeshift lab equipment used to collect the mould.

In February 1941, a very sick patient received penicillin for the first time and the impact on him was considered a miracle. It was, however, quickly learned that stopping usage too early leads to resistance, when the gentleman sadly died.

I can’t help wondering if more was made of this early lesson, people today might better comprehend why their doctor is choosing not to prescribe antibiotics to them: and they may understand the importance of completing the course. We face today a very real risk of antibiotic resistance meaning infections of old could resurface as dangers.

Marie-Louise’s story continues through many fascinating details of the early trial and usage of this drug which puts into perspective just quite how far medicine has come in a short space of time and celebrating those involved.

Many thanks to Marie-Louise from CuratorWithoutMuseum.com for what was a remarkable journey back in time.


By Victoria McWade


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