PENICILLIN by David Wilson


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The hope of the author, an English science writer (The New Archaeology, 1975), is to demythicize the story of penicillin. He wants to get it straight about Fleming and the agar dish in 1928 and explain why a decade passed before Florey and Chain began to study bacterial antagonism and once more noted penicillin's remarkable activity. It is an earnest, intelligent endeavor, a story that should be set right for the archives, but too long by half. But whether a generation reared on antibiotics even knows or cares about the history is doubtful. So the book has a curious rebound effect. In reviving the characters and the true train of events it reminds us of how set ways of thinking, scientific attitudes, rivalries, and--in the case of drugs--patents and profits, color the course of events. Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was not patented by its English developers. But the most efficient process for its manufacture was patented in America. In response England made sure that no future antibiotic discoveries would go unprotected. And so it has been through the many generations of drugs developed since. Interwoven with the penicillin story are good accounts of the development of the sulfa drugs, streptomycin, and the semi-synthetic penicillins. A final chapter discusses research on interferon--the mysterious antiviral substance produced in body cells.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1976
Publisher: Knopf