Out of all the molds in the world, the one that most people will recognize is penicillin. However, few people realize that it has had a long and involved history with humanity. People see mold as an inconvenience and nuisance, but there are molds that have shaped our history for the better. Even the people in the world of mold are not as recognizable. Have you heard of Alexander Fleming? Probably, but you’re less likely to know about some other important people (at least in the world of mold!): Howard Florey, Norman Heatley, and Ernest Duchesne. Do you know how far back mold has been affecting us? Take a look at some ancient but surprising history.
Long ago, many societies used molds (as well as some other weird concoctions) as a way to treat wounds and infections. They likely never understood what they were doing though. The Greeks and Indians, for instance, used moldy bread to treat infections, while Babylonians used frog bile and sour milk. The moldy bread of the Ancient Egyptians was centuries ahead of its time! Who knew that penicillin was being used while the pyramids were being built? These methods continued for a long time until people started to discover molds that would prevent bacterial growth. For the longest time though, people didn’t realize what they were doing. They just knew that it worked!
Louis Pasteur and Ernest Duchesne
In the 1800s, Louis Pasteur, the man who gave us pasteurization and vaccination, discovered that some cultures of anthrax, when contaminated with molds, would no longer grow. Yet, it was another Frenchman who would make the connection and have more proof.
His name was Ernest Duchesne. He worked at a military health school in Lyons researched molds and bacteria in 1887. Eventually, he discovered that bacteria and molds didn’t get along. Specifically, some molds would inhibit the growth of bacteria, resulting in immunity or resistance. To test this theory, he injected guinea pigs with typhoid bacteria. He then injected them with a mold media comprised of penicillium glaucum, a mold used in the making of blue cheese. He discovered that the guinea pigs who he’d injected with the mold had not only survived, but became immune. From this, he concluded that the mold was responsible. Without it, they would not have survived or gained their immunity.
Yet Duchesne was so young when he discovered it, the Pasteur Institute did not recognize his efforts. As a result, his dissertation was ignored and his military service prevented him from continuing his research. He died at the age of 37 and his work fell into obscurity.
Fleming’s Accidental Discovery
It would be decades later that Duchesne’s work would come to light once more. It would end up being an accidental discovery by Alexander Fleming. In 1928, in a messy laboratory, Flemming was studying bacteria. This bacterium was sometimes the reason for food poisoning but was otherwise harmless. Unlike most scientists, Fleming was a man who did not have a great care for cleanliness. One day, before going on vacation, Fleming stacked his samples and left. When he came back he’d found one of the bacteria cultures were contaminated by mold. The bacterium was dead around the mold, but the colonies that were far away from it were fine.
He showed it to a colleague and continued testing it. He produced a culture of the mold in question. In 1929 he released the revolutionary substance to the public under the name of penicillin. However, interestingly enough, Fleming’s mold was not the same one that Duchesne had. The type of mold Fleming had discovered could handle things like scarlet fever and meningitis, but not typhoid. In spite of it though, he had trouble with his resources to cultivate the mold. Further problems with testing and cultivation led Fleming to abandon his research and move on to other things. However, we were lucky that others decided to pick up where he left off.
H. Florey and N. Heatley
Doctors Howard Florey and Norman Heatley would get the funding needed to continue. This also allowed them to carry out clinical testing on mice. In 1941, Florey and Heatley worked with American scientists to develop their research and produce a more effective drug. One of their lab assistants discovered a strain that reproduced far more than the other ones, though they still had issues with cultivation. But then, penicillin began to make a name for itself when opportunity struck. World War II turned this struggling project into today’s common antibiotic. Without it, the casualties from the war from infection would’ve been far higher. It actually reduced the number of casualties from infection down to one percent, an incredibly low number in comparison to previous conflicts.
The Modern Day
For their work, Foley and Fleming were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Today, penicillin is an incredibly important and common antibiotic used. Even with penicillin allergies having been found in people, it has helped millions. Currently, there are problems arising with the prevalence of antibiotics and bacteria becoming resistant to them. However, this growing resistance to penicillin can’t discount how much good the antibiotic has done for humans. Stretching back through the ages, penicillin and other molds have helped save countless lives. So the next time you see a slice of moldy bread, thank it before you throw it out.