The term antibiotic was first used in 1942 by Selman Waksman and his collaborators in journal articles to describe any substance produced by a microorganism that is antagonistic to the growth of other microorganisms in high dilution.  This definition excluded substances that kill bacteria, but are not produced by microorganisms (such as gastric juices and hydrogen peroxide). It also excluded synthetic antibacterial compounds such as the sulfonamides.
Synthetic antibiotic chemotherapy began in Germany with Paul Ehrlich in the late 1880s. Ehrlich noted certain dyes stained human, animal, or bacterial cells, while others did not. He then proposed the idea that it could be possible to produce chemicals able to bind selectively and kill bacteria without harming the host. After screening hundreds of dyes against various organisms, he discovered a medicinally useful drug, the synthetic antibacterial Salvarsan now called arsphenamine.
In 1895, Vincenzo Tiberio, physician of the University of Naples discovered that a mold (Penicillium) in a water well has an antibacterial action. After this initial chemotherapeutic compound proved effective, others pursued similar lines of inquiry, but it was not until in 1928 that Alexander Fleming observed antibiosis against bacteria by a fungus of the genus Penicillium. Fleming postulated the effect was mediated by an antibacterial compound named penicillin, and that its antibacterial properties could be exploited for chemotherapy. He initially characterized some of its biological properties, but he did not pursue its further development. Howard Florey and his team in Oxford become interested in penicillin in the mid 1930s following the pioneeristic work of Alexander Fleming. Before, moulds had been used empirically as traditional remedies for infected wounds for centuries. The observation that organisms, including fungi, were able to produced substances capable of preventing the growth of others was as old as bacteriology itself. Actually one antibiotic called pyocyanase, produced by the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, had been used therapeutically by instillation into wounds, at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The actual circumstances of Fleming's discovery have become interwoven with myth and legend. Attempts to reproduce the phenomenon have led to the conclusion that the lysis of staphylococci in the area surrounding a contaminant Penicillium colony on Fleming's original plate could have arisen only by an extraordinary concatenation of accidental events, including the vagaries of temperature of an English summer.
1. SA Waksman (1947). "What Is an Antibiotic or an Antibiotic Substance?". Mycologia 39 (5): 565–569.
2. Calderon CB, Sabundayo BP (2007). Antimicrobial Classifications: Drugs for Bugs. In Schwalbe R, Steele-Moore L, Goodwin AC. Antimicrobial Susceptibility Testing Protocols. CRC Press. Taylor & Frances group.
3. Limbird LE (December 2004). "The receptor concept: a continuing evolution". Mol. Interv. 4 (6): 326–36.
4. Bosch F, Rosich L (2008). "The contributions of Paul Ehrlich to pharmacology: a tribute on the occasion of the centenary of his Nobel Prize". Pharmacology 82 (3): 171–9.
5. "Almanacco della Scienza CNR". Almanacco.rm.cnr.it. March 2, 2011. http://www.almanacco.rm.cnr.it/reader/cw_usr_view_recensione?id_articolo=1704&giornale=1679.
6. Salvatore De Rosa, Introduttore: Fabio Pagan. "Vincenzo Tiberio, vero scopritore degli antibiotici - Festival della Scienza
7. Fleming A (1980). "Classics in infectious diseases: on the antibacterial action of cultures of a penicillium, with special reference to their use in the isolation of B. influenzae by Alexander Fleming, Reprinted from the British Journal of Experimental Pathology 10:226-236, 1929". Rev. Infect. Dis. 2 (1): 129–39.
8. Sykes R (2001). "Penicillin: from discovery to product". Bull. World Health Organ. 79 (8): 778–9.
Send mail to
questions or comments about this web site.