The Miracle Cure
There is one name that anyone even remotely familiar with the story of penicillin remembers, and that's Alexander Fleming, the Scottish physician and scientist who discovered the penicillium mold in 1928. But penicillin wouldn't be a story if it weren't for a whole cast of characters who, beginning in 1939, took up where Fleming left off. One of those characters was a Vassar graduate, class of 1931—Gladys Hobby.
In 1940, Hobby was a microbiologist at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University working with two colleagues, Dr. Karl Meyer, a biochemist, and Dr. Martin Henry Dawson, a clinician and associate professor of medicine, on infectious diseases. Dawson read the results of two penicillin experiments on mice carried out by the researchers at Oxford who subsequently won the Nobel Prize, along with Fleming, for the discovery of penicillin—Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain.
Dawson wrote to them and asked them for a sample of the mold. Here's how Eric Oatman, writing for the Journal of The College of Physicians and Surgeons, describes what happened next:
"'We naively undertook "to make some penicillin,"' Hobby recalled in her book 'Penicillin: Meeting the Challenge.' Doing that, she quickly learned, meant becoming a kind of brewmaster, an expert in the fermentation processes required to produce the drug. 'Soon hundreds of two-liter flasks lined every classroom laboratory bench at the Columbia University Medical School,' she wrote. 'We had no adequately large incubators and no space in our own small laboratory for such large numbers of flasks, but moved in and out of classrooms as the students moved out and in.'
"Eventually they discovered that the school's two-story amphitheater was an excellent incubator, and they stored their flasks under the seats. 'At last the penicillium cultures could be grown under stationary conditions'at least during the eight to nine months of the year when room temperatures were within the range suitable for growth of the mold.'
"To vent the fumes produced when the solvents used to extract the drug were evaporated, Meyer and an assistant set up a still on a fire escape overlooking Fort Washington Avenue. 'Later,' Hobby wrote, 'the techniques we used seemed very primitive, but they provided enough concentrated and partially purified penicillin to convince us of the efficacy of the drug and enough even to help save a few patients' lives.'
"Dawson's interest in penicillin stemmed from his concern for patients with subacute bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart lining or valves that in 1940 was invariably fatal. On Oct. 16 and 17, 1940, less than a month after research began and three months before the first human tests in Oxford, he tested what little penicillin Meyer had been able to produce on two men who were suffering from this disease. The doses, administered at Presbyterian Hospital, were too small to produce a therapeutic response. (Almost two years would go by before they had enough penicillin to treat a patient adequately.) But the test confirmed the Oxford group's observation that penicillin wasn't toxic."
After testing penicillin on 10 more patients, they presented their findings at the American Society for Clinical Investigation, which produced front-page coverage in several major newspapers. The New York Times headline read: "GIANT GERMICIDE YIELED BY MOLD. New Non-Toxic Drug Said to Be the Most Powerful Germ Killer Ever Discovered. TRIED ON HUMAN BEINGS."
To make a long story short, the news coverage generated the interest of the pharmaceutical industry, and their involvement paved the road to government funding and a massive, international effort to produce the drug, which they did—in time to save the lives of thousands of soldiers in World War II.
"Of all the weapons developed during World War II," Oatman writes, "penicillin was probably the most important. Along with the microbial drugs that came afterwards [which, incidentally, Hobby also played a major role in developing], it lowered the incidence and severity of infectious diseases and made medical advances such as burn management, open-heart surgery, and organ transplantation possible. That's not too shabby a result for a substance discovered among a stack of neglected plates by a rested, discovery-prone scientist, incubated in bedpans in Oxford and under auditorium seats at P&S in New York, and extracted from a soupy culture medium on a fire escape."
So, in case you missed it: Gladys Hobby '31 brewed the first batch of penicillin tested on humans.
"The Drug That Changed the World," by Eric Oatman, Journal of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Winter 2005
Photo credit: Courtesy of Pfizer, Inc.