How was sulfa penicillin discovered

Penicillin - triumph and tragedy : Germ and killer

On this day Albert Alexander was to write medical history: It was February 12, 1941, a Tuesday, and the 43-year-old policeman from Oxford was in terrible shape. Two months earlier he had stabbed a rose bush and left a scratch in the corner of his mouth. The wound became infected, purulent abscesses reached the hairline and eye sockets, attacked the bone substance. The doctors tried to get the foci of infection under control with surgical means, they even removed one eye. And they pumped the patient full of sulfonamides.

Sulfonamides: the wonder drug. Synthesized from a dye, developed in Germany. In 1941, the danger of bacterial infections had long been known. Milk has been pasteurized since Louis Pasteur. Soldiers of all nations have been carrying sterile bandages with them since the First World War. But if sepsis spread, the wounded man could hardly be helped.

The meningitis killed every third patient

Although the hygienic conditions in hospitals had improved dramatically since the beginning of the century, in Germany in 1932 1,200 women per million pregnancies still died of puerperal fever. It was now possible to vaccinate against tuberculosis, but when the disease broke out there was no remedy. Pneumonia was feared, meningitis killed every third patient. And even seemingly harmless infections could quickly become life-threatening.

In around 1923, Lord Carnarvon made the headlines. First because he financed the expedition that led to the discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun's gold treasure in Egypt. Then through his swift death. The lord was bitten by a mosquito and cut his little lump while shaving. His passing within days haunted newspapers worldwide as the "curse of the pharaoh", in fact the wound had become infected with streptococci.

If one blames the inadequate wound care in Egypt, a year later the best doctors in the USA were helpless when it came to the life of Calvin Coolidge Jr. The 16-year-old son of the incumbent president suffered a blister on his toe while playing tennis on the White House lawn. The wound became infected with Staphylococcus aureus. The subsequent blood poisoning killed the boy in just a week.

Such was the situation when Gerhard Domagk discovered the antibiotic effect of a dye from the group of sulfonamides in Wuppertal. One of the first patients on whom Domagk tested the new product Prontosil was his six-year-old daughter. The girl had stabbed herself while she was embroidering, and the subsequent blood poisoning set in a high fever, and the attending physician recommended that her arm be amputated. Gerhard Domagk protested and injected his Prontosil. After just two days the fever had dropped to normal.

The Nazis forbid accepting the Nobel Prize

The discovery earned Domagk the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1939. But when the prize was awarded, he was not allowed to go to Stockholm. Since Carl von Ossietzky, who was deported to the concentration camp, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935, the Nazi regime had forbidden all Germans to accept the Nobel Prize. To be on the safe side, Domagk was arrested by the Gestapo before the ceremony in Stockholm and only released after a week.

Less than two years later, his discovery would save the life of an Oxford police officer while Britain was at war with Germany. The trouble was, the sulfonamide treatment didn't work. Albert Alexander was still doing badly, despite the supposed miracle cure.

The sulfonamides had achieved remarkable success. Childbed fever seemed to be overcome in barely five years, pneumonia and meningitis gradually lost their horror, gonorrhea, a venereal disease also known as gonorrhea, could be cured in 95 percent of cases within ten days. But the spectrum of bacteria that can be treated with the new antibiotic remained limited. Worse still, the mutability of aggressive microbes should soon become apparent. Prontosil didn't kill them, it just stunted their growth. The microbes became stronger and more resistant.

There was someone who foresaw this development. Alexander Fleming, Scottish bacteriologist, had attended a lecture by Domagk in 1935. There he commented on the discovery with the sentence: “I have something better, I call it penicillin.” But penicillin was not yet a drug, but at most a promise.

A wide variety of substances had meanwhile been tested for their antibiotic effects, Fleming's discovery more a coincidence. When he returned from his vacation in September 1928, he noticed that some of the rehearsals he had previously scheduled were moldy. The strange thing was that this mold had kept a bacterial culture in check. Fleming called the substance penicillin, Latin for the brush, after which the tube-like mold got its name.

To home page