The discovery of penicillin could be the most famous of all medical advances. The drug, which is a derivative of the mould Penicillium notatum, was the first antibiotic effective against a variety of bacterial infections. Prior to the use of penicillin, infection was an extremely common cause of death from injuries and illnesses that today would be considered minor.
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The antibiotic effect of moulds belonging to the genus Penicillium was first noticed in 1871 by Joseph Lister, who pioneered the technique of sterility during medical procedures. This discovery was repeated several times but received little notice until 1928, when Alexander Fleming noticed a halo of inhibited bacterial growth surrounding Penicillium notatum in a plate culture. He was able, with the assistance of a chemist, to isolate the substance produced by the mould--penicillin. Because the mould produced only tiny amounts of the drug, many years passed before penicillin was available to the public. A method of mass-producing penicillin was finally discovered in 1944, and the practice of medicine was forever changed.
Penicillin was not the first antibiotic, although it was the first to prove effective against many infections. The first relatively useful antibiotic was probably Salvarsan, a drug discovered in 1909 by Paul Ehrlich. Salvarsan was a compound made from arsenic that was effective in the treatment of syphilis and other diseases caused by spirochaete bacteria. Other antibiotics became available after penicillin had been discovered, but before it was available to the public. However, they were more limited in their use than penicillin was. For example, tyrothricin could only be used in the treatment of external infections due to its toxicity.
Penicillin had many advantages at the time of its discovery and remains an important drug today. Penicillin had a remarkably low incidence of serious side effects compared to other drugs available at the time. Prior to the discovery of penicillin, arsenic and other toxic substances were the mainstay of medicinal treatment for bacterial infections. Amputation and other dangerous and disfiguring surgical procedures were often required to save lives, but even these drastic methods often failed.
By the 1950s, after penicillin could be more cheaply produced in large quantities, it became widely prescribed. Unfortunately, penicillin soon became too-widely prescribed,and was often taken in an attempt to treat minor illnesses that are usually a result of viral infections. Patients also had, and continue to have, a tendency to stop taking their antibiotic prescription before the course of treatment is finished. These two practices have led to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which are a serious health concern.
There is little doubt that penicillin has saved millions of lives. Even victims of diseases that do not respond to penicillin treatment have benefited from the development of this drug. The discovery prompted scientists to begin searching for other antibiotics that could be used to treat infections penicillin could not. Related drugs, including ampicillin, methicillin and amoxicillin offered effectiveness against different groups of bacteria, and in some cases fewer side effects. Amoxicillin is now the most widely-used antibiotic in the world because of its broad spectrum of efficacy and its low side effect profile.
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