Theme: Urgency created by wars and epidemics combined with the can-do attitude of the twentieth century triggered medical advancements that extended American life expectancy and improved the overall quality of life for the American population.

Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin

Before the use of penicillin during World War II, many soldiers died from bacterial infections rather than directly from their wounds.
The most significant medical advancement that affected American life was the discovery of penicillin, one of the earliest identified and most widely used antibiotics. Penicillin was discovered by Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming working at St. Mary’s Hospital in 1928. He observed that colonies of bacterium could be destroyed by Penicillium mold, demonstrating that the mold released an antibacterial agent (Bellis). This principle later led to the invention of an unprecedented medicine that could kill certain types of disease-causing bacteria within the body. Fleming published his findings in 1929, stating that his discovery could have therapeutic properties if it could be produced in quantity, but the significance of his breakthrough was unknown at the time (Bellis).

In 1938, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley expanded on Fleming’s work at Oxford University. The scientists worked to develop methods of cultivating, extracting, and purifying enough penicillin to establish its value as a drug (Fogal). By the time their investigations began to show results, World War II had commenced and proceeded to drain England of its industrial and government resources. The British scientists could not utilize factory resources in order to cultivate the quantities of penicillin needed for clinical trials on humans and turned to the United States for help, relocating their research in 1941 to protect it from the German bombardment of England (Bellis)(Fogal). As the devastation of the war amplified, interest in penicillin increased in laboratories, universities, and drug companies in both Europe and the United States. Research continued on how to grow the mold efficiently in order to produce penicillin in the mass quantities that would be needed for millions of soldiers. The pressure of time pushed scientists, who knew they were in a race against death since many soldiers were not dying directly from their wounds, but from infections that set into those wounds (Fogal).

Success came in 1941, when the scientists were able to drastically increase the yields of penicillin. By 1943, the required clinical trials were performed and penicillin proved to be the most effective antibacterial agent to date. Penicillin production quickly increased, and it was available in quantity to treat Allied soldiers wounded on D-Day (Bellis). Enough penicillin was generated to treat seven million patients per year by the closing stages of the war (Wong). As its accessibility skyrocketed, its price dropped from twenty dollars per dose in 1943 to fifty-five cents per dose by 1946 (Bellis). The impact of penicillin was instantaneously evident with regard to the war. Of the millions of soldiers who had died in combat in pre-penicillin World War I, many had died from infection of pneumonia. Death rate from pneumonia in the American army decreased from eighteen percent in World War I to less than one percent in World War II (Wong). The discovery of penicillin diminished the amount of American casualties from infection and extended and improved the quality of American lives.

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