U.S., British scientific societies honor penicillin as International Chemical Landmark

November 14, 1999

The development of penicillin, one of the 20th century's greatest lifesavers, will be honored as an International Historic Chemical Landmark at 11a.m. Friday, Nov. 19 in London. The designation takes place 70 years after the discovery of the drug was first published by Alexander Fleming.

Representatives from the government, academic and private sector research teams that helped move Fleming's discovery from the lab to the hospital will be reunited in London for the designation of the landmark by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Washington, D.C.-based American Chemical Society. The last surviving member of the original research team, biochemist Norman Heatley of Oxford University, will be a special guest at the ceremony, to be held at Fleming's laboratory in St. Mary's Hospital, London.

While Fleming's identification of penicillin and its potential uses was first published in 1929, development of a viable drug and the ability to mass-produce it during World War II proved tougher obstacles to surmount. Researchers from Oxford University in England were able to test penicillin in mice and in humans, then sought wartime help in funding, further research, and manufacturing from U.S. government agencies, academic institutions and pharmaceutical company labs. The resulting teamwork was carried forward when, after the U.S. entry into World War II, the government recruited more than 20 chemical companies to mass-produce the drug. The result: Deaths from infected wounds during the war were virtually eliminated, as 95 percent of the wounded soldiers survived.

The American Chemical Society designates important steps in the evolution of chemical science and technology as Historic Chemical Landmarks. "The landmarks program reminds us of the grandeur of chemistry, while underlining that chemistry is a very human enterprise, filled with all triumphs and setbacks of men and women trying to understand the world and make it better," said Ed Wasserman, Ph.D., president of the American Chemical Society.

A plaque, to be erected at the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum, gives credit to all who participated. It reads "the large-scale development of penicillin was undertaken in the United States of America during the 1939-1945 World War, led by scientists and engineers at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory of the US Department of Agriculture, Abbott Laboratories, Lederle Laboratories, Merck & Co., Inc., Chas. Pfizer & Co. Inc., and E.R. Squibb & Sons."
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The Royal Society of Chemistry is the learned society for chemistry and the professional body for chemists in the UK with 46,000 members worldwide. It can trace its origins back to the Chemical Society founded in 1841. The Society is a major international publisher of chemical information, supports the teaching of chemistry at all levels, organizes hundreds of chemical meetings a year and is a leader in communicating science to the public.

A nonprofit organization with a membership of nearly 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. ( http://www.acs.org )

American Chemical Society

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