Before the use of penicillin became widespread, people used to die of ailments that we would consider minor today. Complications caused by throat infections, boils, and, chest infections used to frequently kill people before they could be combated by antibiotics.
Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Dr. Alexander Fleming. He had been growing some bacteria on a Petri dish which was left unattended for a few weeks. When he returned, Fleming found a mold growing on the dish while the bacteria were mysteriously absent.
Fleming deduced that the mold was instrumental in destroying the bacteria, and this led him to discover that the staphylococcus aureus could potentially be used to fight human infections.
It wasn’t until twelve years later, however, that Howard Florey and Ernst Chain made Fleming’s discovery into a usable product that could treat the populace. Penicillin was first used extensively during the Second World War when it was used on a large scale in military hospitals to reduce infection in soldiers’ wounds. Penicillin was shortly followed by streptomycin and a series of anti-infection drugs, known as antibiotics.
Today, different types of penicillins are essential to help doctors fight bacterial infections. Fleming, Florey, and Chain received the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition of their services to humanity. Their discovery undoubtedly helped to revolutionize modern medicine.
Vincristine was first discovered by a team of American scientists in the 1950s led by J.G. Armstrong. Vincristine is derived from the Rosy Periwinkle plant, which originates from Madagascar. The former Latin name of the plant was Vinca Rosea, thus giving Vincristine its name. Its brand name is Oncovin.
The Rosy Periwinkle plant had been used for centuries in local folk remedies, and Chinese medicine, but in the 1950s the aforementioned team of western scientists discovered that the plant had a wide range of up to 70 biologically active alkaloids, some of which could be used to help treat a wide range of cancers, such as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Vincristine then started to have a massive impact on modern medicine. The periwinkle is extremely rare in the wild today but is successfully cultivated across the world.
Today, Vincristine is frequently used intravenously during chemotherapy to treat different types of cancers. It is also used with the steroid prednisolone to treat childhood leukemia. Thousands of lives have been saved since the discovery of the use of vincristine.
Aspirin is a painkiller that is derived from the bark of the willow tree. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, wrote about how chewing the bark of the willow tree could help relieve pain and reduce swelling, but it wasn’t until 1829 that scientists made the discovery that it was the compound known as salicin that provided the pain relief.
The European scientists worked over the next few decades to discover innovative ways of extracting pure salicylic acid from the bark and making it safe for human consumption.
Their work was eventually abandoned, but in 1899, the drug was trademarked by a German chemist called Felix Hoffmann for the Bayer company and, in 1915, the first aspirin tablets went on sale. Bayer’s success wasn’t to last though. After Germany lost the First World War in 1918, Bayer was forced to give up the trademark as part of the Treaty of Versailles reparations.
Today, aspirin is a phenomenally successful drug with over 40,000 tonnes of it being taken over the world each year. It is widely available in all chemists and is used to reduce fever, provide pain relief, and even as a long-term measure to prevent strokes and heart attacks. The drug development industry continues to study new potential treatments with the ongoing aim of creating new life-changing medicines.
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