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Administering miracles: archives from the dawn of the antibiotic age

May 22, 2015

no hope

My friend Jessamy Carlson, an archivist and researcher at the UK’s National Archives, has just posted a fascinating blog entitled ‘No hope without Penicillin‘. Jess and me share an interest in the administration and production of penicillin in the late stages of World War 2 – which heralded the dawn of the antibiotic age of public medicine.

My interest began as a very personal one: my father’s life was saved by the use of Penicillin on his wounded body in the D-Day invasion. Its early production in 1944 was confined exclusively to the war effort. Only when peace came did the general population begin to know the extent of this medical miracle – and its ultimate limits.

Jess focuses on particular UK government correspondence in those weeks leading up to the first widespread use of the drug. What’s fascinating is that the rumour machine is in full swing – the medical community knows that something big is coming, and their desperation for this new wonder drug is evident. The papers report that inquiries are flooding in from medics far and wide, begging access to this new drug for treating their desperately ill patients. In one moving telegram, a doctor pleads for the life of a child with peritonitis and septicaemia, aware that penicillin is the only thing that might save them. Yet the authorities must withhold the drug for battlefield use.

Another interesting aspect is that knowledge of Penicillin’s efficacy has not yet been fully established – with some believing it might be effective in treating diseases like cancer or leukemia. Yet for me the most arresting item is the prescient remark made by Sir Edward Mellanby (of the Medical Research Council) On the 7th December 1943, who wrote:

“No substance can be more easily wasted, especially if it is poured into patients by systematic treatment”

Mellanby was talking about the risk of antibiotic resistance. Even before the antibiotic age had begun, there were those who worried that we may come to regret squandering this rarest of medical miracles…

Take a look at Jess’s post here:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2015 9:17 pm

    I too find penicillin interesting – some stems from antibiotics in biology, but most stems from listening to you talk about your father and the utter awe and love you had when telling us your story from when you were a child.

  2. May 31, 2015 12:51 pm

    Hey Bee, thanks for the reply. And thank you for your comments! Glad you enjoyed the talk 🙂

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