Only one word tells the story of penicillin: That word is ‘miracle.’
That is how reporter Walter Humphrey described what he saw after visiting a hospital in 1944 where the new drug was being tested (Shelton, 1944).
If you could… as I did, see series after series of before and after pictures of cases where the drug penicillin has been used, you [would] wonder no more.”
He saw it with his own eyes and—regardless of the fact that he knew next to nothing about medicine and even less about the brand new field of antibiotics—he had (he assumed) all the evidence he needed. Penicillin was, without a doubt and without further need for study, a cure-all drug.
The word spread, the general public was elated! There was nothing it could not heal! Penicillin was made available over-the-counter and reports were issued claiming penicillin could cure everything from cancer to viral infections.
There are at least two important points to observe from the story of the discovery of penicillin. First, the supporters were blinded by their optimistic belief that penicillin was so amazing it could miraculously cure anything. The detractors were equally blinded by their cynical belief that penicillin was a farce, and would be shown to be as worthless as every other discovery that had been prematurely hailed a cure-all. Neither side got it completely right.
Penicillin actually was a significant breakthrough within the domain of what it could actually do. This was unknown at the time, as the drug had only just been discovered. The supporters blindly used it everywhere, the detractors alternately ignored and criticized it. Over time, it was discovered that as an antibiotic used against certain kinds of bacterial infections, penicillin is highly effective. As a miraculous cure-all that brought about near-instant healing from any and possibly every ailment, it was a disaster.
Second, blind ignorance created avoidable problems. The perpetuation of the ignorant belief that penicillin was a cure-all led to the widespread over-the-counter availability of penicillin to anyone, for any reason. This irresponsible overuse, in turn, resulted in the emergence of penicillin-resistant strains of bacteria1, which greatly diminished its usefulness by making the drug less capable (Freeman-Cook, Freeman-Cook, Alcamo, & Heymann, 2006). Failure to do the hard, tedious, time-consuming work of understanding what it was actually able to do (rather than what seemed possible in the emotionally-charged context of blind optimism) and the parameters and variables that affected it resulted in a highly undesirable outcome.
To put it another way: ignorance as to why the results of initial tests exceeded expectations does not prove that what brought about the results is a miracle.
- Freeman-Cook, L., Freeman-Cook, K. D., Alcamo, I. E., & Heymann, D. L. (2006). Staphylococcus Aureus Infections. Infobase Publishing.
- Shelton, H. M. (1944). Hygienic Review (Vol. V). Health Research Books.
Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, wrote in 1945: The greatest possibility of evil in self-medication is the use of too small doses so that instead of clearing up infection, the microbes [microorganisms] are educated to resist penicillin and a host of penicillin-fast organisms is bred out which can be passed to other individuals and from them to others until they reach someone who gets a septicemia [infection in the bloodstream] or a pneumonia which penicillin cannot save. (Shelton, 1944) ↩