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Antibiotics

Antibiotics discs on a Petri dish containing bacteria.  The areas around the discs show the action of the antibiotic.

Antibiotics discs on a Petri dish containing bacteria. The areas around the discs show the action of the antibiotic.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Antibiotics are used for treating infections and illnesses caused by bacteria. They cannot be used against disease caused by viruses. Selman Waksman coined the word ‘antibiotic’ in 1942 to describe such chemicals derived from living organisms.

In 1877, Louis Pasteur observed in his experiments that some types of bacteria obstruct the growth of other types. Scientists experimented with this phenomenon of ‘anti-biosis’ (‘against life’), but it was not until Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928 that a substance of significant potential value for medical treatments was found. During the Second World War (1939-45) penicillin saved many lives on the battlefield and in the hospital. This success motivated scientists to search for other micro-organisms which could be used to combat infections with bacteria or fungi.

In the 1940s a team headed by the future Nobel Prize winner Selman Waksman (1888-1973) discovered two more antibiotics produced by bacteria, actinomycin and streptomycin, which live in the soil. Further antibiotics were discovered in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the widespread use of antibiotics has led to the emergence of new strains of germs that are resistant to antibiotic treatment. These ‘superbugs’ have caused new concerns for doctors and public health specialists.

Bibliography

D Greenwood, Antimicrobial Drugs: Chronicle of a Twentieth Century Medical Triumph (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Robert Bud, Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Glossary:

Bacteria

Micro-organisms which can cause disease but have an important role in global ecology.