On March 18, 1957, Time magazine carried an announcement by Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist John C. Sheehan that he had achieved the first successful synthesis of Penicillin V – or phenoxymethylpenicillin – in a laboratory setting. Penicillin V is the orally active form of Penicillin, first discovered by Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming in 1928 growing in a accidentally left-out-uncovered-overnight Petri dish of tasty Staphylococcus. The vibrant blue-green mold was creating a “halo” in the dish, where the new antibiotic was inhibiting growth of the Staph bacteria.
Turns out there are multiple forms of Penicillin, many with unfortunately poor activity, limited effectiveness, and major side effects. Up until the 1950′s, delicate Penicillin had been easy to grow but impossible to make in a lab. Finding a way to synthesize basic Penicillin would allow researchers to create variations around the active core of the molecule, some of which might be better tolerated, treat a wider range of infectious bacteria, and have a stronger effect in the human body.
This is in fact what John Sheehan achieved. By careful trial and testing, he was able to cook up a starter Penicillin – sort of a basic recipe. That recipe could then be used by himself and other researchers to develop new strains or variations of artificial Penicillin. Time’s article mentioned that, since Sheehan’s work had gone public, Merck, Sharp, and Dohme Research Labs had already been able to make ten new Penicillin compounds without using fermentation. Patients with allergies to naturally occurring Penicillin, or who were infected with Penicillin-resistant bacteria could now have hope for an effective antibiotic to treat their conditions.
Time went on to give a sense of the magnitude of Sheehan’s accomplishment. Soldiers experienced many infections during combat in World War II, and part of the war effort was to discover how to do what Sheehan had just done. “A thousand chemists working in 39 laboratories in the U.S. and Britain spent an estimated $20 million trying” to generate the extremely fragile molecule, Time reported. Now all sorts of ‘cillins and ‘sporins would be coming down the pike to help Americans and people around the world suffering from tonsilitis, skin infections, strep throat, staph infections, syphilis, anthrax, rheumatic fever, and other nasty or even deadly bacteria baddies.