Antibiotics: From Accidental Discovery to Cornerstone of Medicine


From its origins as a serendipitous discovery to being successfully prescribed for nearly a century, antibiotics remain a foundation of medicine. However it has major ongoing challenges including the rise of superbugs and the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). There are some prospective strategies to combat AMR on the horizon.

November 18-24 marks both the US Antibiotic Awareness Week and the World Antimicrobial Awareness Week. It cannot be understated that the accidental discovery of penicillin and the subsequent development of antibiotics revolutionized modern medicine. Antibiotics remain a major underpinning within the overall field.

In 1928, Scottish physician-scientist Alexander Fleming began a series of experiments involving the common staphylococcal bacteria. In the fall of that year, Fleming had an uncovered petri dish sitting next to an open window in his lab, which became contaminated with mold spores. He saw that the bacteria in proximity to the mold colonies were dying, as evidenced by the dissolving and clearing of the surrounding agar gel. He was able to isolate the mold and identified it as a member of the Penicillium genus. Hence, the serendipitous discovery of the first antibiotic.1

This class of medicine has been treating patients for nearly a century, yet patients' safety is in danger with the rise of superbugs and antimicrobial resistance. Newer strategies are emerging in hopes of staving off the issue, including diagnostic stewardship and US federal government incentives.

Check out our slideshow on the development of antibiotics, the rise of AMR, and some of the prospective initiatives to combat it.


1.Tan SY, Tatsumura Y. Alexander Fleming (1881-1955): Discoverer of penicillin. Singapore Med J. 2015;56(7):366-367. doi:10.11622/smedj.2015105

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