Antibiotic Discovery and Development

pp 79-117


Beta-Lactam Antibiotics

  • Malcolm G. P. PageAffiliated withBasilea Pharmaceutica International Ltd Email author 

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The beta-lactam antibiotics constitute one of the oldest and most popular classes of anti-bacterial agents. The beta-lactams first used for human therapy, were isolated from molds, particularly Penicillium chrysogenum. The story of the discovery of the antibacterial properties of molds goes back to the earliest recorded history [50, 135]: in 3000 BC, Chinese scribes documented the use of moldy soya beans to treat infected wounds [22]; in the sixteenth century BC, a Greek peasant woman reputedly cured wounded soldiers using mold scraped from cheese [82]; the Ebers papyrus from Egypt, dated around 1550 BC, gives a prescription for treating infected wounds with “spoiled barley bread” [52]; in the second century BC, soldiers in Sri Lanka applied poultices made from moldy oilcakes to wounds. The therapeutic usage of molds continued in such ways through to the nineteenth century without much consideration of how the molds might be exerting their influence.