Penicillin: the medicine with the greatest impact on therapeutic outcomes

  • Nelson Kardos
  • Arnold L. DemainEmail author


The principal point of this paper is that the discovery of penicillin and the development of the supporting technologies in microbiology and chemical engineering leading to its commercial scale production represent it as the medicine with the greatest impact on therapeutic outcomes. Our nomination of penicillin for the top therapeutic molecule rests on two lines of evidence concerning the impact of this event: (1) the magnitude of the therapeutic outcomes resulting from the clinical application of penicillin and the subsequent widespread use of antibiotics and (2) the technologies developed for production of penicillin, including both microbial strain selection and improvement plus chemical engineering methods responsible for successful submerged fermentation production. These became the basis for production of all subsequent antibiotics in use today. These same technologies became the model for the development and production of new types of bioproducts (i.e., anticancer agents, monoclonal antibodies, and industrial enzymes). The clinical impact of penicillin was large and immediate. By ushering in the widespread clinical use of antibiotics, penicillin was responsible for enabling the control of many infectious diseases that had previously burdened mankind, with subsequent impact on global population demographics. Moreover, the large cumulative public effect of the many new antibiotics and new bioproducts that were developed and commercialized on the basis of the science and technology after penicillin demonstrates that penicillin had the greatest therapeutic impact event of all times.


Penicillins Antibiotics β-Lactams Cephalosporins Carbapenems 



A considerable portion of this review derives from statements made directly by Professor Ernst Chain to one of the authors (NK), who was a graduate student under Professor Chain at Imperial College, London, in 1973–1974.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CoatesvilleUSA
  2. 2.Charles A. Dana Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti (R.I.S.E.)Drew UniversityMadisonUSA

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