Monday, June 10, 2024

Penicillin – An Unlikely Cure — By Suzanne Norquist

I once read the story of a woman doctor in the Old West. In her later years, someone asked her, “What did you do before penicillin?”

Her response, “People died.”

Doctors did their best to keep things clean and prevent infection, but they often couldn’t stop the bacteria once it began to grow.

In the early 1900s, scientists searched for a remedy. Most of the research focused on chemical treatments. Think tincture of iodine—the red drops teachers put on every playground cut. Kids would blow on it until the stinging stopped. This tincture came into use around 1909.

Fungus, molds, and other botanical remedies have existed since antiquity. In the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s, various physicians and pharmacologists recorded the use of molds in fighting infection. However, they never could figure out what exactly made them effective.

Scottish microbiologist Dr. Alexander Fleming was researching ways to kill bacteria in 1928. He kept samples in his lab for testing. When he went on holiday, he returned to find that a mold had stopped the bacteria growth.

He identified it and named it penicillin. However, he wasn’t able to grow significant quantities of the organism. He wrote a scientific paper, which went largely ignored—interesting but irrelevant.

This discovery sat for nearly ten years until Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at Oxford University came across Fleming’s work and continued the research with a team of scientists. It took them three years to develop a process to purify the penicillin. However, they still only created small quantities of the substance.

They built a penicillin “farm” and hired “Penicillin Girls” to oversee the process.

In 1941, the team contacted pharmaceutical companies to scale up production. However, England was at war, and no one was able to produce the new drug.

So, the team visited the USDA laboratory in Peoria, Illinois. There, scientists used their knowledge of corn and fermentation to improve the process.

They also searched for better strains of mold. One of the lab assistants found a rotting cantaloupe that would produce six times more penicillin than the original strain.

With an improved process and increased demand because of the war, US pharmaceutical companies were willing to produce the medication. Allied forces attempted to keep the research and the mold away from the enemy, but Germany could eventually grow penicillin, too.

Initially, the life-saving medication was only available for military use. That didn’t stop doctors and pharmacists from attempting to grow their own, although the practice didn’t seem particularly common.

By mid-1944, many hospitals in the US were able to acquire the manufactured product for civilian patients. It was touted as a wonder drug. No doubt, many people feel that way about modern antibiotics.

It took eighteen years for Alexander Fleming’s mold to go from his petri dish to hospitals worldwide. Everyone who has ever suffered from an infection can be grateful for the effort of these dedicated scientists. 


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.



  1. Thank you for posting today. I agree that antibiotics changed the medical field significantly.