How World War II put penicillin into every pharmacy

An urgent drive to develop infection-fighting drugs for the wounded led to the mass production of the first effective antibiotic.

Desperately ill, Albert Alexander, a middle-aged police officer, lay in an Oxford, England, infirmary. It had started with a thorn scratch on his face as he tended his rose garden, according to a common account—or, as other evidence suggests, from a minor injury suffered in a German bombing raid. Now, though, he had lost an eye and was oozing pus all over from sepsis, an extreme and potentially lethal reaction to infection. He had at least come to the right place.

Researchers at Oxford University, led by Howard Florey, an Australian pathologist, and Ernst Chain, a biochemist who had fled Nazi Germany, were developing a promising new drug. On February 12, 1941, Alexander became the first patient to receive the treatment with the hope that it would cure him—and he soon rallied. But the drug was so hard to produce that the researchers had to painstakingly recycle it from his urine for reinjection. When the supply ran out, he died.

Years later, when penicillin became the wonder drug of the century, the media would lionize Alexander Fleming, a quiet microbiologist who first described the peculiar antibacterial power of the Penicillium mold and coined the name “penicillin” in a little-noticed 1929 research paper. But it was Florey and his team whose long struggle ultimately turned penicillin from a laboratory curiosity into a practical antibiotic.

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