Oxford’s contribution to the development of Penicillin treatment is being celebrated today, 75 years on from the first discovery of its potential to combat bacterial infections.
Few discoveries have impacted human life across the globe as fundamentally as antibiotics. Staples of modern medicine, they are used to treat a wide range of illnesses and infections. Their discovery has rendered previously life-threatening conditions benign, changed our attitude towards illness and mortality, and made possible ever more complex surgical advancements.
While most current news stories focus on growing bacterial resistance to our front-line of defence, it’s often overlooked that the first use of antibiotics in medicine was just 75 years ago by scientists from the University of Oxford.
Alexander Fleming famously discovered penicillin 1928, but it wasn’t until 1941 that it was first put to the test in a human patient, police constable Albert Alexander. Following a scratch from a rose thorn, Alexander developed a severe infection and was admitted to Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary.
Three researchers at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley, had been investigating the use of penicillin to treat bacterial infection in mice. Albert Alexander became their first human test subject. Although he began responding well to the treatment a lack of resources unfortunately led to their small stock of penicillin running out. Alexander died shortly afterwards.
The researchers then started looking into ways of mass-producing the drug, first in large bathtubs in their Oxford laboratories. They later collaborated with US-based pharmaceuticals firms to produce industrial quantities of the drug, which was widely used by Allied forces during World War II.
Florey, Chain and Fleming were later awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine in recognition of their work. The research that started in Oxford continues to this day across the Medical Sciences Division.
The Oxford contribution is being commemorated today with a Heatley Lecture at the University’s Weston Library. The speaker, Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, is highlighting the new challenges facing societies in a rapidly changing world, but also the remarkable opportunities a golden age of science offers.
The discovery of penicillin and its conversion into a medical treatment was a milestone in twentieth century chemical and pharmaceutical science. It now remains to be seen what the first game-changing developments of the twenty first century will be.