Although for centuries preparations derived from living matter were applied to wounds to destroy infection, the fact that a microorganism is capable of destroying one of another species was not established until the latter half of the 19th cent. when Pasteur noted the antagonistic effect of other bacteria on the anthrax organism and pointed out that this action might be put to therapeutic use. Meanwhile the German chemist Paul Ehrlich developed the idea of selective toxicity: that certain chemicals that would be toxic to some organisms, e.g., infectious bacteria, would be harmless to other organisms, e.g., humans.
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist, observed that Penicillium notatum, a common mold, had destroyed staphylococcus bacteria in culture, and in 1939 the American microbiologist René Dubos demonstrated that a soil bacterium was capable of decomposing the starchlike capsule of the pneumococcus bacterium, without which the pneumococcus is harmless and does not cause pneumonia. Dubos then found in the soil a microbe, Bacillus brevis, from which he obtained a product, tyrothricin, that was highly toxic to a wide range of bacteria. Tyrothricin, a mixture of the two peptides gramicidin and tyrocidine, was also found to be toxic to red blood and reproductive cells in humans but could be used to good effect when applied as an ointment on body surfaces. Penicillin was finally isolated in 1939, and in 1944 Selman Waksman and Albert Schatz, American microbiologists, isolated streptomycin and a number of other antibiotics from Streptomyces griseus.
Sections in this article:
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
More on antibiotic History from Fact Monster:
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Pharmacology