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What Is Penicillin?

Imagine waking up with a sore throat and fever. You can't swallow and your whole body
aches so your mom takes you to the doctor. After they scrape your throat with a giant
cotton swab, the doctor says you have strep throat. You'll have to take a pill called penicillin
to get rid of the infection that is making you sick.
Penicillin is an antibiotic produced by mold, which kills bacteria or keeps it from making
more bacteria.
Penicillin only works on infections and illnesses caused by bacteria, like strep throat and
skin wounds. It doesn't work on viruses like those that cause colds.

How Was Penicillin Discovered?

Alexander Fleming was a doctor and scientist in London, England, in the early 1900s who
was trying to figure out how to kill bacteria. Back in those days, many people got sick and
died from infections caused by bacteria.

Dr. Fleming

So while you might not think about the scrape you got on your arm when you fell off your
bike, if it got infected with bacteria back then, you might have died from the infection.
In his lab, Fleming was experimenting with bacteria when some of his experiments
accidentally got a kind of mold in them called Penicillium (pronounced pen-ih-SILL-ee-
He noticed the bacteria wasn't growing around the mold and studied it some more.
Eventually, he separated out small amounts of 'mold juice,' which we now know as
Although Fleming first recognized how well it could kill dangerous bacteria, he wasn't able
to make enough of it to turn it into a life-saving medicine.

Penicillin facts for kids

Core structure of Penicillin: R is the variable group

Certain molds naturally produce Penicilin.

Penicillin is a common antibiotic, used to treat bacterial infections. It was one of the
first to be discovered, and worked well against staphylococci and streptococci. Many
strains of baceria are now resistant. Chemists keep changing part of its structure in the
effort to keep it working against the bacteria.
Penicillin was discovered by Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928, but it
was not mass-produced until the 1940s. The antibiotic is naturally produced by fungi of
the genus Penicillium. There is now a whole group of antibiotics derived
from Penicillium: penicillin G, procaine penicillin, benzathine penicillin, and penicillin
Penicillin is sometimes used to treat tonsillitis, meningitis, and pneumonia as well as
other diseases. It was first used widely during World War II.
Penicillin was discovered when Fleming noticed a mould that was stopping bacteria
from growing in a petri dish. Australian scientist Howard Walter Florey made the
penicillin mould into a medicine. Together with another scientist Ernest Boris Chain,
Fleming and Florey were given the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945.
Some people are allergic to penicillin. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, or rash.
Rarely, patients who are allergic to penicillin get a fever, vomit, or have serious skin
irritation. Because it is such a popular antibiotic, penicillin is the most common cause of
serious allergic reactions to a drug. They are now used regularly in hospitals.
Total synthesis
Chemist John C. Sheehan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) did the
first chemical synthesis of penicillin in 1957.