In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin through an equal mix of scientific rigor and serendipity. Still, doctors spent the better part of the 1930’s one step behind infections that had no regard for human life. Penicillin was simply too expensive and difficult to produce in large quantities, and the drug was tucked away on a laboratory shelf until the outbreak of WWII in 1939. The US government used the need to treat battlefield infections to seize control of penicillin production, along with the intellectual property and patents behind the drug. But Uncle Sam’s questionable tactics paid off: from 1939 to 1944, penicillin went from an expensive laboratory experiment to a battlefield staple in every soldier’s medic kit.
Having lost their patents and potential financial gain to the government, drug companies began the quest to develop other types of drugs that were similar to penicillin, thereby launching a billion dollar antibiotic development industry.
NPR had a segment on ‘All Things Considered’ this week discussing the full story of bringing penicillin to market, which appears in a new book, ‘A Fierce Radiance’, by Lauren Belfer.