Antibiotics: A Brief History

Antibiotics: A Brief History

Antibiotics are one of the critical discoveries humankind has made. In a pre-antibiotics world, the most common cause of death was infections. A very harmless-looking wound could give one an infection that could cost them their life. However, this changed once the antibiotics were discovered and incorporated in medical treatments.

The conception of Antibiotics dates back to the early 19th Century when a German physicist, Paul Ehrlick, observed that certain chemical dyes could colour some bacterial cells but not the others. This was a seedling to the theory that there must be substances that could kill a specific type of bacteria without harming the other cells. Though he discovered a chemical that was the first modern antibiotic, he never used that term. It was only 30 years later that the term ‘antibiotic’ was used first time by the Ukrainian-American inventor and microbiologist Selman Waksman, who discovered over 20 antibiotics.

Penicillin, which is also known as ‘the wonder drug’, was discovered by accident. When Sir Alexander Fleming returned from a holiday, he found that a fungus has contaminated a cultured bacteria plate which he had forgotten to cover. The fungus had cleared the bacteria wherever it had grown in that plate. This fungus was Penicillium. Penicillin helped save many lives from various infections.

However, what started as a means to save lives, has today become one of the biggest threats to global health. Over the years, we have abused antibiotics by using them carelessly, even when they are not needed. This has resulted in a phenomenon called ‘Antibiotic resistance’.

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria change in response to the usage of antibiotics; they become resistant. It has risen to dangerous levels, and it can affect anyone. If we do not check this, many of the things that seem so easy today will become problematic. Treating infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis will get complicated. All the achievements of modern medicine like surgeries, organ transplant, chemotherapies, etc. may be lost too.

Trying to understand how we have reached here, needs us to take a look into how antibiotics are exploited. It must be surprising for many of us, but, the primary source of antibiotics entering our system is not the medicines but the food we consume every day. Yes, you read it right.

It is a wide-spread practice to use antibiotics freely in agriculture. The farm animals are fed small doses of antibiotics regularly not to cure a disease, but to prevent disease. These antibiotics then find a way into our system.

Coming up next on Our blog: How do Antibiotics enter our food?