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The discovery of penicillin (1964)

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A government produced film about the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming, and the continuing development of its use as an antibiotic by Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain. The film uses many modernist animations to depict the scientific research. This video was made from material preserved by the BFI National Archive. Find out more:

Poverty hunger and disease these three ancient enemies of man still stalk hand-in-hand across much of the world of the three disease can be said to be the most deadly you disease often fathers hunger and poverty this is the story of how one of the mightiest weapons against disease was forged it is the story of penicillin the first of the modern wonder drugs known as

Antibiotics today the penicillins are only one group of antibiotics among many and in laboratories throughout the world the search goes on for more to learn how the first of them penicillin was discovered and developed one must know of the work of three british scientists what they achieved has revolutionized medicine sir alexander fleming for the initial discovery

Of penicillin dr eb chain and sir howard florey for their finding its curative power to benefit millions early in the 1920s in london alexander fleming a young bacteriologist worked in the inoculation department of st. mary’s hospital familiar with antiseptics and inoculation as weapons to help the human body battle against disease germs he began to wonder what

Natural defenses might be possessed by exposed parts of the body such as the eyes in each place fleming found a protective substance which could destroy some germs before they invaded the body some germs but not all and not the most deadly in one of the glass dishes where he cultured germs for his experiments fleming noticed one day in 1928 that some mold such as

Appears on decaying food had begun to grow a spoiled experiment but with mind alerted by the earlier work on protective substances he looked closer he saw that near to the mold no germs were growing might it be that this mold like the human body produced a substance capable of destroying germs he made tests and found that even some of the most dangerous germs died

Near to the mold he then grew the mold in a meat broth liquid the color of the liquid changed finally to a bright yellow this liquid proved lethal to germs even when greatly diluted not pure enough to be injected into a human body it was nevertheless effective on wounds fleming published what he had done calling his substance penicillin attempts to purify it and

To extract its essence failed in the 1930s a new chapter opened at the university of oxford the professor of pathology dr. howard florey was joined by dr. eb chained together they planned a research project on natural germ killing substances they unearthed the now old papers on penicillin they formed a team the great quest was on first chain and his colleagues

Said to work on the chemical problems of extraction and purification they found a way of transferring the active penicillin from liquid to liquid until it was held within almost pure water they froze off the water which left a brown powder here was a powerful form of penicillin still crude but which produced no ill effects in animals florie prepared the great

Test the germ streptococcus is a killer this he injected into mice half of them then received the brown powder those who had been given the penicillin lived and were healthy and professor flora declared it looks like a miracle but attempts to make it pure enough for man caused it to lose its potency chained and a colleague dr. abraham then devised another method

Dissolving the crude penicillin in ether they passed it through a long tube filled with alumina each substance producing layers of differing colors in the yellow layer was penicillin they repeated the process again and again now florida could try penicillin on human beings the results prove the healing power of penicillin but by now world war two was raging the need

For penicillins healing power was enormous for soldiers and for civilians but in 1941 purified penicillin was still desperately short and britain was hard pressed by air attacks to make the quantities needed it was decided to seek help in the united states here scientists devised better ways of culturing penicillin which could give much bigger yields production

In quantity could now be foreseen with encouragement from their government american drug companies tackled the difficulties of producing penicillin on an industrial scale flore returned to chain and the others able to look forward to supplies for further research alexander fleming had a patient dying of meningitis fleming turned to florrie and florrie gave him

All the penicillin that could be made available and with it his advice profoundly impressed by this personal experience of penicillins dramatic power fleming addressed himself to the british government about the need for large-scale production and the press took up the cause the big british chemical and drug companies and the research workers now also projected

The big scale production of penicillin the mold was grown in thousands of flasks britain’s output joined the huge supplies now coming from the united states to give life to hundreds of thousands of soldiers by the end of the war flasks had been replaced by great steel vats each making 15,000 gallons of penicillin liquid and huge factories were in production both

In britain and the united states penicillin was now for the world everywhere curing the sick everywhere saving lives but some deadly germs had forms which resisted penicillin this was a challenge which research had to meet in the middle of the 1950’s a famous british drug company set up a special team to work in close collaboration with professor chain and in

1959 a breakthrough this is the core the main building block of a molecule of penicillin alone it possesses no germ killing power but add other groups of atoms to it and you make a penicillin add one group of atoms to it and you make the original penicillin add others and you make an ever-growing family of new penicillins some of these can tackle the germs which

Originally resisted and some can carry the attack to germs not formerly sensitive to penicillin at all and in the meantime work has continued at oxford where yet another mold has produced yet another penicillin like substance careful oh sporran see this too has a basic core which in turn can be used to build a family of antibiotics to carry further the attack

Against germs which formerly had resisted all these mighty weapons against disease stem in some way from the forging of the first one penicillin the great discovery for which in 1945 the world likely and gratefully honored doctor eb chain saw howard florey and sir alexander fleming pioneers in a struggle which promises now to drive back that ancient enemy disease

Transcribed from video
The discovery of penicillin (1964) By Wellcome Library