The earliest form of antibiotics were used in ancient history, when the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians used specifically selected mould and plant materials to treat infections. Since this the next significant insight into the world of antibiotics was in 1874, when Sir William Roberts studied cultures of the mould Penicillium glaucum and discovered that they did not show any bacterial contamination. This was the beginning of the investigation into antibiotics and was further investigated into in 1876 when physicist John Tyndall began researching this field and soon after Louis Pasteur conducted research showing that Bacillus anthracis would not grow in the presence of the mould Penicillium notatum. These are the basic finding that provided a basis for the creation of antibiotics.
The more significant and famous experiments and research into antibiotics began at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century with Ernest Duchesne. He published a dissertation titled ‘Contribution to the study of vital competition in micro-organisms: antagonism between moulds and microbes’. This was the first known scholarly work that explained the potential therapeutic use of moulds with their antimicrobial properties. In his studies Duchesne observed that when bacterium E. coli was attempted to be grown in a culture with Penicillium glaucum, it’s growth was inhibited as it was killed. Later, in another investigation he inoculated laboratory animals with lethal doses of typhoid bacilli alongside Penicillium glaucum, the animals did not develop the typhoid disease. This was a huge breakthrough in the study of antibiotics but unfortunately soon after getting his degree Duchesne’s army service prevented him from doing any further research and in 1912 Duchesne died of tuberculosis, a disease now treated by antibiotics. (Wikipedia, 2017)1
The next major breakthrough and possibly the most famous of all was the research done by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928. When Fleming was working on the cultures of Staphylococcus (a bacterium that cause boils, sore throats and abscesses) he discovered an abnormality on one dish; it was dotted with colonies of the bacteria as he expected except for one area where an area of mould was growing. The zone immediately around the mould was clear as if it had secreted something that inhibited bacterial growth (the mould was later identified as a rare strain of Penicillium notatum). Fleming discovered that his concoction of different bacteria was capable of killing a wide range of harmful bacteria, such as streptococcus, meningococcus and the diphtheria bacillus. After this he assigned his colleagues, Stuart Craddock and Frederick Ridley, the difficult task of isolating pure penicillin from the solution. The extracted substance was too unstable and so only a small amount of crude material was synthesised to work with. In June 1929, Fleming published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology without knowing of its potential future applications. Upon reflection, it appeared to Fleming as if its primary function would be to isolate penicillin resistant bacteria from the penicillin susceptible bacteria in a mixture. This at least was of practical benefit to bacteriologists, and as a result kept interest in penicillin going. Other chemists such as Harold Raistrick, a professor of biochemistry at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, conducted multiple research projects into penicillin but ultimately, he came to the same result that penicillin was unstable. At the time Fleming did not realise he had found the first antibiotic that would go on to cure millions of people from life threatening diseases. Because of his scientific breakthrough he was knighted in 1944 and then shared the Nobel prize for medicine with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in 1945.