Penicillin and Ernest Duchesne

Sometimes it is the person to first make the biggest waves in a field to get the credit. Sometimes, a more talented, lesser-known figure made the discovery years before, and they don’t get the credit due to a lack of standing. It’s not only the medical field though that this occurs in. We’ve seen it in other fields too – like with Tesla and telecomm – but because of the nature of medicine, it’s not always known or taught. And one instance of this is in the case of penicillin and a man named Ernest Duchesne.


In a previous blog entry, I discussed how one of the most important medical discoveries, penicillin, came to be. The man who originally got the most credit for it was Alexander Fleming. His colleagues Howard Florey and Norman Heatley would also get credited later on. Yet the effect of the mold was discovered a little more than thirty years earlier.  His name was Ernest Duchesne.


Duchesne’s Background

Picture of Ernest Duchesne

Though there is little on Duchesne’s life before his discovery, we do know he was born in Paris in 1874. He grew up and entered the Military Health Service School of Lyons in 1894 and graduated in 1897. During this time, he became fascinated with microbes and how they worked. It led to his discovery upon seeing Arab stable boys encouraging mold growth on saddles. The mold helped heal saddle sores on the horses. From here, Duchesne made a sample and began to experiment.

The Discovery

Guinea pigs similar to what Ernest Duchesne would have used in his experiments.

His experiments, one in particular, with the molds ended up leading to his thesis. He took this mold and started seeing how it interacted with bacteria, most notably typhoid fever and E. coli. Using guinea pigs, he injected them with the bacteria and, as expected, observed they died from it. Next, he attempted a mix of the mold and the bacteria. The guinea pigs did get sick, but they each survived. As an added benefit, they became immune to the bacteria. From here, he reached this conclusion (translated from the original French):

“It seems, on the other hand, to follow from some of our experiments — unfortunately too few and which it will be important to repeat anew and to check — that certain molds (Penicillum glaucum), inoculated into an animal at the same time as very virulent cultures of some pathogenic microbes (E. coli and typhoid), are capable of reducing to a very considerable degree the virulence of these bacterial cultures.” (Duchesne, 54)

Sadly though, the medical community ignored Duchesne’s work. He was twenty-three at the time and his youth made him an unknown in the eyes of the Pasteur Institute. In spite of his efforts to try and conduct more research, his military service prevented him from doing it. He served in a military hospital and married a woman named Rosa Lassalas in 1901. She died two years later, leaving him alone and heartbroken. Duchesne was not long for the world though and died himself in 1912 at the age of 37. He was buried next to his wife in Cannes without the world ever recognizing his contributions.


Posthumous Recognition

Time passed, and Alexander Fleming made his accidental discovery. He would eventually go on to earn the Nobel Prize for it in 1944. For Duchesne though, it would be 1946 before his work’s rediscovery. Three years later, he finally received recognition for it. In 1974, Monaco even had a stamp made in honor of his discovery.


There might not be a lot on him and a lot of his work has become forgotten, but Ernest Duchesne is finally getting credit for his work. We should never forget this pioneer of microbial research.

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