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Kulturkampf: The German Quest for Penicillin

Gilbert Shama looks at the German research into penicillin during the Second World War.

Faroe Islands stamp commemorating Fleming, from 1983

When in 1928 Alexander Fleming noticed that a mould had contaminated one of his petri dishes, apparently dissolving the bacteria growing on it, he was shrewd enough to isolate it in order to examine it more closely. The mould turned out to belong to a group known as the penicillia and was able to produce a substance that even at very low concentrations had the power to destroy many disease-causing bacteria. Fleming called this antibiotic substance ‘penicillin’.

In the years following its discovery, penicillin was to gain a reputation as a useful laboratory tool, but it was the work of two Oxford scientists that was to reveal the drug’s true potential. In 1938 Howard Florey and Ernst Chain set out to study natural antibacterial substances. Early in their investigations they chanced upon penicillin and in a short space of time made enormous progress with their research. Their first achievement was to purify it. This allowed them to show that penicillin could protect animals infected with large doses of normally fatal bacteria. It was these results that convinced the Oxford scientists that they were dealing with an extraordinary new drug. Following normal scientific practice, and the war notwithstanding, they published their results in the medical journal The Lancet.

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