As a Blue Plaque is unveiled on the Radcliffe Primary Care Building, Sarah Morrish tells the story of the first human trial of penicillin, which took place on the site of our building in 1941. While the Accident Ward has since been demolished, the Outpatient's Building is now the Radcliffe Primary Care Building, home to Oxford University's Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences
While Sir Alexander Fleming was the first to suggest that the mould, Penicillium, secreted an antibiotic substance, which he named penicillin in 1928, it wasn’t until 12 years later that penicillin was first tested in a patient - here on the site of the former Radcliffe Infirmary. Sir Ernest Chain and Professor Howard Florey, along with their team at the William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford, went on to refine penicillin into an antibiotic drug and demonstrate how effective it could be against bacterial infections.
Along with Dr Charles Fletcher, a young doctor at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Professor Florey injected the first human patient with penicillin on 12 February 1941 in an Infirmary ward attached to the original Outpatient’s Building. The patient was 43 year-old policeman Mr Albert Alexander.
It is said that Mr Alexander scratched his face on a rose bush in his garden, which then became infected, and he was admitted to the infirmary. He was injected with penicillin over the course of four days by Professor Florey’s team, and within just 24 hours his health started to improve. However, due to the low supply of the new drug, the penicillin had to be extracted from Mr Alexander’s urine and re-injected. Unfortunately the supply ran out before he could be cured and he later died on 14 March 1941.
The research team learnt a great deal from their trial in Mr Alexander, and the next seriously ill patients to receive the drug made recoveries thanks to penicillin – it was to be the miracle drug of the age. Infections that had been killing people were now being cured, and companies in the US and the UK started to manufacture the drug, even producing enough to treat military casualties during World War II. Penicillin was used in the D-Day landings, dramatically reducing the death toll from infected wounds.
Penicillin has since inspired researchers worldwide, leading to the discovery of new antibiotics to treat many of the infectious diseases that threaten humans and animals. But antibiotics have been overprescribed and overused, leading to the development of strains of bacteria which are resistant to their effects. This is now one of the greatest threats to human health, and work on this site by researchers in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences is now looking to understand how community-based general practitioners can reduce the number of antibiotics they prescribe to their patients.
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On Tuesday 29 May 2018, the Oxford Blue Plaque Society unveiled two plaques in Oxford commemorating penicillin, one on the Western wall of the South wing of Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary, currently occupied by the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, and one on the front (Southern) wall of the William Dunn School. Here Jeff Aronson notices these, two other plaques, and a memorial stone, reflects on the long history of penicillin, and includes personal memories about some of those who were involved in the Oxford work.