National Greatness

The development of penicillin is one of the greatest triumphs of modern medicine.  People realized that chemotherapy really was practical after the advent of the sulfa drugs – but they had limitations. Penicillin hit a much wider spectrum of organisms and had fewer problems with resistance.

The original development was done in Great Britain [ Fleming, Florey, Chain, Heatley, etc.], but GB was short on resources, and the United States took up the task of mass production of penicillin.  They managed to ramp up production one-thousand fold between 1943 and 1945, through deep-tank fermentation,  more productive strains, and a better nutrient solution.

As production rose, availability increased. At first, penicillin was largely reserved for US and British military needs.  Later, it became available to US and British civilians, and soon after for general usage.

But there was a  time window of several months in which American-produced penicillin was available for American wounded but not for French casualties. Fortunately, it happens that penicillin is rapidly excreted in urine.  It can be recovered.  Between January and April 1945, Rhône-Poulenc extracted penicillin from the urine of wounded American servicemen being treated in hospitals around Paris, penicillin which was then used to treat the wounded of the French Army.  They typically recovered about 100 doses from 300 liters of urine.

When American piss is the elixir of life – that is national greatness.


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18 Responses to National Greatness

  1. But, culturally speaking, it was English piss, hence Anglo-Saxon greatness.

  2. John Harvey says:

    We in the mother country are more than happy to see one of our former colonies aspiring to greatness.

  3. LSD says:

    No joke: the other day, one of my academic colleagues (I’m in linguistics) got in a huff because I wouldn’t attribute the discovery of penicillin to indigenous medicine men. Or something. I was going to send her to Wikipedia, but . . . meh. You can’t argue with certainty.

  4. Dahlia says:

    That’s funny. Was this post loosely inspired by “fecal transplants” which virtually cure C. difficile and are likely good for all sorts of gastrointestinal diseases (and even Parkinson’s)?

  5. Cloudswrest says:

    As production rose, availability increased. At first, penicillin was largely reserved for US and British military needs. Later, it became available to US and British civilians, and soon after for general usage.

    I have a personal anecdote in this regard. My father’s brother was a tween during WWII when he contracted osteomyelitis in his leg. It was pretty bad and he did not respond to any of the treatments (which left him chemically castrated and for all practical purposes a eunuch, high pitched voice, 300+ lbs, etc. I hear the the infection is pretty refractory, even today. A colleague who had it had a big syringe full of antibiotics strapped to his leg and had to give it a push every hour or so.) My grandfather, a Wash D.C. policeman, was able to use some connections to get him Penicillin which did end up curing him at the last minute.

  6. Polynices says:

    I’ve always loved that story.

    It’s also my understanding that development of sulfa drugs resulted in part from pissing. They’re derivatives of coal-tar dyes and apparently it was noted that the workers’ urinals in the dye factory were quite clean — because of the amount of compound they absorbed into their bodies and it naturally being broken down from prodrug form into active antibiotic. The managers’ urinals were normally dirty because they weren’t exposed to the dye precursors. confirms the prodrug bit but not the urinal part. I learned that in pharmacology class — perhaps it’s bunk, but it’s a fun story.

    • Anthony says:

      Another possibly anecdotal story about penicillin is that when the effectiveness of it as a drug was realized and the decision was made to produce it for the Army, the first mass production consisted of taking a lab-bench scale setup which worked, and multiplying it by a few hundred. Not by using containers that were hundreds of times the size, but by using hundreds of pieces of lab-sized hardware, and combining the results. This got them some production while they worked on scaling up – lots of chemical and biological processes have scaling issues, and they’re not always obvious.

  7. Greying Wanderer says:

    Never heard that before – great story.

  8. teageegeepea says:

    There was a British police officer in 1940 who was repeatedly treated with penicillin extracted from his own urine, but it wasn’t enough and he died.

  9. budusan says:

    Meanwhile, Russians simply started their own, completely independent production – and excelled at it:

    • gcochran9 says:

      You’re wrong. The Russkis were behind every Western country in penicillin production. Unfortunately, they never managed to make any significant amount during the Great Patriotic War: I wish they had.

      “In the beginning of 1947, on the basis of the data obtained, work was developed on setting up an industry for penicillin production and the construction of penicillin factories in a number of cities of the country.” ..
      “In the end of 1948 and the first half of 1949, the newly created chemical enterprises began to be put into production.” .. “On the basis of the work of Oxford chemists on the stimulation of the process of penicillin formation, phenylacetic acid, and subsequently phenylacetamide, was added to the nutrient medium as a precursor. The introduction of a precursor into the medium provided for an increase in the benzylpenicillin content in the amorphous
      preparation up to 60-70%, but nonetheless, the quality of the preparation remained rather low. By the end of 1947, the advanced capitalist countries had practically ceased the production of amorphous penicillin and had switched to the production of the crystalline sodium salt of benzylpenicillin. The works of Clark and Robinson, Florey, and Chain, devoted to this problem, were not published until 1949 and did not reach our country until some time later. ”

      There are six major classes of antibiotics: sulfas, beta-lactams (penicillin and cephalosporin), tetracyclines, macrolides (erythromycin), quinolones (ciprofloxacin), aminoglycosides (streptomycin), and glycopeptides (vancomycin).

      The Soviet Union didn’t develop any of them. They copied. The Jesuits did more.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Yes, the Soviets had an entire Directorate of the KGB that did nothing but steal technology from the West. At the heighth of the Cold War, our R&D establishment was essentially doing research for us and the USSR. That’s not to say that the Commies didn’t do some pretty innovative and creative things with what they had to work with, but, like some of our modern competitors, they were a lot better at evolutionary application of existing technology, rather than “breakthroughs”.

  10. Toddy Cat says:

    No, they certainly weren’t like Japan. From what I’ve seen, no one esle is like Japan. But some of the Soviet stuff was comparable to our stuff, and it wasn’t all stolen; the MiG-15 was pretty good for its time. Of course, the Brits gave them the engine…

    • teageegeepea says:

      Don’t forget the Kalashnikov.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Yes, at the level of small arms and artillery, the Soviets were pretty good. It seems like it was in the areas of breakthrough technology ( where intellectual courage and freedom are required) that they really fell down. Is it my imagination, or is modern America faltering in those same areas?

      • Hunsdon says:

        Although the Soviets vehemently denied it, the similarities between the 7.92x33mm Kurz and 7.62x39mm M43 cartridges have convinced me, among many others, that the latter was adapted from the former. (Each is a shortened version of the producing country’s main battle rifle cartridge.) I am insufficiently informed as to the internal workings of the StG44 to compare it with the Kalashnikov . . . but they each use a gas piston to operate the bolt, and are select-fire carbines.

        Kalashnikov designed a rugged and reliable rifle, but I’m pretty sure the inspiration was the StG44.

        (I am not merely a Slavophile but a Russophile, so it’s not like I’m saying this while polishing my Iron Cross and wishing I had a Hugo Boss uniform.)

  11. AG says:

    Sulfa have wider spectrum than penicillin. But sulfa are bacteriostatic; Penicillin is bactericidal. For sensitive germs, penicillin is better choice. A practioner’s opinion.

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