Almost everyone has used an antibiotic like penicillin or Terramycin at one time or another. You may have tried using an antibiotic ointment for bad cuts or scrapes, or your doctor may have prescribed antibiotics to help you get over fever, boils, pneumonia and other infections. Antibiotics work very well against so many infections that they are often called “miracle drugs”. But the more accurate name for them would be “microbe drugs” for that is what antibiotics really are. Antibiotics are essentially chemicals that helped kill or stop the growth of certain germs and bacteria. It comes from two Greek words meaning “against life”.
More than 3000 years ago, Asian peoples had already stumbled on molds that could cure certain afflictions. The Indians of Central America as well the Chinese used molds to treat infected wounds in rashes however, they did not understand either diseases or treatments in the way we do now. Many of them thought in terms of magic and spiritualism, so they simply believed that molds drove away evil spirits that cause the disease. As time passed, men had slowly gained some more knowledge of disease. True understanding began only in recent times. In the 1860s, a French scientist Louis Pasteur proved that many diseases were caused by bacteria and concluded that man could learn to fight these bacteria using other bacteria.
Two German doctors, Rudolf Emmerich and Oskar Low, were the first men to make an effective medicine from microbes. Among other things, they successfully proved that the germ that causes one disease can also cure another. The two men took germs from infected bandages and grew them in test tubes. They managed to isolate a vicious germ that caused the green coloring in infected and opened wounds. This bacterium was the Bacillus pyocyaneus. When the doctors placed some of these bacteria into test tubes containing other germs, the Bacillus pyocyaneus would wipe the other germs out. The good news was the other bacteria it managed to wipe out were the bacteria that caused cholera, diphtheria, anthrax and typhoid fever.
Emmerich and Low began to use Bacillus pyocyaneus to make”pyocyanase”. This would be the first antibiotic to be used in hospitals, but unfortunately it was ahead of its time. Nobody knew how to control its production or how the chemical worked. It was also noticed that the medicine did not have the same effect on all patients. While some people got better, others only became sicker. So pyocyanase was eventually abandoned.
Other scientists continued to look for a safe and effective antibiotic, but it was only in the summer of 1928 that a research scientist named Alexander Fleming would produce the first real breakthrough in antibiotic medicine. While studying the germ called Staphylococcus aureaus (which causes a number of ailments that lead to brain disease) he noticed that the molds in one of his petri dishes became spoiled. He noticed that around the spot of mold was a germ-free ring of gelatin that meant the mold had killed the germs around it. He did more research and eventually called it penicillin. An American, Dr. Selman Waksman, discovered streptomycin which proved to be effective against diseases that penicillin could not cure, such as the bubonic plague.
At around the same time, sulfa drugs came about. The drug was a chemical that had been found in a substance used to make dyes. These were powerful weapons against disease but had serious drawbacks. It was then found that sulfa drugs did not kill germs but rather weakened germs, which gave the body a chance to defend itself.
Research scientists then began a worldwide search for the most helpful soil microbes. One laboratory discovered Aureomycin and that does the work of both penicillin and streptomycin. Another laboratory discovered Chloromycetin, which was proven effective against typhus, whooping cough and typhoid. In 1949, an Indiana laboratory discovered Terramycin, now considered to be one of the most effective antibiotics ever found because of it’s wide effect on so many bacterial diseases.
Even so, the search goes on. Drug companies continue to seek new antibiotics in nature and their chemists are now making synthetic antibiotics. Since it is very difficult for a chemist to imitate the work done by microbes, most antibiotics nowadays are semi-synthetic. Chloromycetin, cycloserine and a synthetic tetracycline were the first few antibiotics that have been produced entirely by man.