Penicillin – Wartime’s Wonder Drug

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It wasn’t only bullets and shells that killed soldiers in the First World War. Infected wounds and the dreaded gangrene were just as deadly killers. Treatment for wounds and infections was basic, and it wasn’t until Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 that any real improvements began to be made.

Even then it wasn’t immediate. With the outbreak of the Second World War, and the corresponding advances in weaponry, ways to combat the effects of this new type of warfare became vital. World War Two was a time when step-change advances had to be made in medicine as a direct response to the new weaponry that was being developed.

While penicillin had been discovered years earlier, it was the war that drove pharmaceutical companies to develop ways to make the miracle medicine on a scale large enough to treat the vast numbers of wounded soldiers and civilians that resulted from the conflict. Obviously the key was mass production yet it was a very difficult thing to achieve.

With the Battle of Britain, and the bombing of our cities and factories in 1940 and 1941, the need for penicillin became of paramount importance. People injured in the air attacks were dying, hospitals needed more effective methods for treating burns, and penicillin was badly needed.

At Oxford University a group of scientists were working hard on the problem. Dr. Howard Florey, Dr. Ernst B. Chain, Dr. Norman G. Heatley, and Dr. Edward P. Abraham were conducting research on penicillin and how it could be used to treat infection. They’d been supplied with some of the penicillin culture by Alexander Flemming himself – growing it on, detailing its remarkable curative powers, and publishing their initial findings in 1940.

In July 1941 the Rockefeller Foundation in New York arranged for Florey and Heatley to go to America to ask for help in making large quantities of penicillin. They met with Dr. Charles Thorn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief mycologist, convincing him of the drug’s potential for treating infection, and the wheels were set in motion for the mass production of Penicillin.

The U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development and its Committee on Medical Research agreed to increase the production of naturally fermented penicillin. At the same time work started on attempting to synthesise the drug for the first time. By 1941 thirty-nine separate drug laboratories in the United States had embarked on the effort to synthesize inorganic penicillin.

The rest is medical history.

Penicillin Cured Many Infections

By D-day, some 300 billion units of penicillin were available to the men that were crossing the channel. Penicillin continued to be used to treat the wounded en-masse after D-Day and it was found to be especially effective against the scourge of the First World War – gangrene. It was particularly timely as the interval between a soldier being wounded and subsequently treated hardly changed at all, despite the advances in the treatment itself. In the British Army, the average time lapse was around 14 hours and before penicillin this extended period was a dangerous time, allowing wounds to fester and often leading to death. With the use of a penicillin dressing, the chance of a wound getting infected was vastly reduced and survival chances greatly increased. Penicillin also benefited soldiers in another way, the drug worked wonders on infections which may have proved difficult to explain to waiting wife’s back home. As a poster from the time warns… she may look clean – but

Even Winston Churchill benefited from the development of penicillin. In 1943, he was treated for pneumonia with a strain of penicillin called ‘M+B 693.’ In a radio broadcast on December 29th, 1943, Winston told the nation: “This admirable ‘M+B’ from which I did not suffer any inconvenience, was used at the earliest moment and after a week’s fever the intruders were repulsed.”

Scientists from Britain and the United States continued to cooperate closely and throughout the war most of the Allies supply of penicillin came from laboratories in Peoria, Illinois. When the need to step up penicillin production increased these laboratories were already researching fermentation on a by-product of the wet corn-milling industry that produced corn starch; a liquid called corn-steep. This liquid was a secondary product left after the corn kernel was removed from the corn during soaking. It was this liquid that became the key to bulk penicillin manufacture. An ideal medium for use in the culture of penicillin, it increased penicillin production by ten times, making the commercial production of the much-needed drug a reality at last.

In Britain it wouldn’t be until 1945 that the first mass production unit for penicillin was established in the historic town of Castle Barnard, in Teeside, County Durham, and despite all of the research, the wartime effort to synthesise penicillin failed and it wasn’t achieved until the late fifties.

For their research and achievement in the development of penicillin, so vital to saving so many lives during the war, Florey, Chain, and Fleming shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1945.

By the end of the war, due to increased research into penicillin, several new and improved strains were developed. The most common strain was now over 20 times more potent that the strain used at the start of the conflict. Despite the increase in wartime production penicillin remained is short supply and a black market developed; as portrayed in the 1949 British film noire, ‘The Third Man’, starring Orson Welles.

As the poster encouraging penicillin farm workers to “give this job everything you’ve got” declared: “Men who might have died will live”. And they did, penicillin really was “The new life-saving drug”. Although it seems that the health risks around smoking were not yet understood if the smiling soldier pictured smoking in his hospital bed is anything to go by.

Penicillin is now used all over the world to treat all kinds of ailments. Thanks to the work of the Oxford Group, numerous scientists and their staff, the Illinois penicillin farms, their workers, and numerous drug companies, the drug that saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of war victims during World War II has continued to save lives all over the world and every single day since.

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