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From Microbes to Matrons

Antibiotics, 1930-1957

A colour photograph of a tube of Prontosil, 1935Prontosil, 1935. Wellcome ImagesThe third period, from 1930 to 1957, was the heyday of antibiotics, beginning with the discovery of penicillin and followed soon after by the introduction of sulphonamides in the 1930s and the clinical introduction of penicillin in WWII. It ends with the flu pandemic of 1957. 

While this period began with optimism over the ability of new drugs and chemicals to rid hospitals of infection, this optimism soon waned following a rise in antibiotic resistance and hospital cross- infection. 

Hospitals began to realise that they could not rely on drugs alone to tackle infection and began to explore alternative approaches, including more stringent sterilisation procedures and centralised syringe services. 

1932 Experiments with Prontosil, the first brand name sulphonamide, begins by Bayer, German drug company. It effectively treats a range of bacterial infections and becomes widely used 

1940 Howard Florey and colleagues at the University of Oxford produced quantities of penicillin to carry out the first clinical trials

1941 The Prevention of Hospital Infection of Wounds is published by the Medical Research Council and distributed to hospitals across the country

1942-3 Penicillin becomes available for clinical trials in the burns unit at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. The seemingly miraculous results lead to the development of creams of sulphonamides, penicillin and propamidine cream

1944 Penicillin becomes available to war wounded before becoming available more generally. The Medical Research Council publishes The Control of Cross Infection in Hospitals and distributes it to hospitals across the country. King’s College Hospital establishes a committee on cross infection in response

1945 The Medical Research Council publishes The Sterilization, Use and Care of Syringes and distributes it to hospitals across the country

1947 Professor Mary Barber, bacteriologist, is among the first to report staphylococcal resistance to penicillin, a rate of 30% in a series of 100 patients treated at the Hammersmith Hospital in London

1948 The National Health Service is launched in Britain. Streptomycin, the first antibiotic for treating tuberculosis, becomes widely available

1949 Ronald Hare, Professor of Bacteriology at the University of London 1946-64, publishes a report on the poor sterilising facilities and procedures at St Thomas’ Hospital

1952 Hospitals including St Thomas’ and Glasgow Royal Infirmary establish Central Syringe Supply Services in an attempt to prevent syringe contamination 

1954 Penicillin resistance moves from a local to a global concern, following the outbreak of a virulent strain of Staphylococcus (‘80/81’)

1956 Penicillin V becomes available. It could be given by mouth avoiding the need for painful injections

1957 The Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust publish The Planning and Organisation of Central Syringe Services and distribute it to hospitals across the country

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