[FOUNTAIN]Too much of a good thingMorphine, penicillin and aspirin are considered the three most significant pharmaceutical inventions.
Morphine is a powerful painkiller and was used as a surgical anesthetic during the American Civil War, and penicillin cured a host of bacterial diseases. Aspirin is widely used to relieve the symptoms of many illnesses, including common colds.
Penicillin is the most important of the three, and as is true of many other inventions, its discovery was an accident.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a professor at Oxford University, was growing staphylococci, a type of bacteria, and discovered that all the bacteria in one specimen dish were dead. That dish also contained some blue mildew, penicillium notatum. While he was absent from his laboratory for a few days, blue mold had entered through broken windows and some spores found their way to one of his culture dishes. Mr. Fleming made the connection, named the blue mold "penicillin" and released a report the following year. But he was not able to refine the penicillin mold.
Eleven years later, Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Walter Florey, also professors at Oxford, did so. They tested the antibiotic on mice in 1940 and mass production of penicillin began in 1941, the first antibiotic in human history.
During World War II, penicillin saved many soldiers from infections caused by their wounds and Winston Churchill used it for his pneumonia. It was called a miracle drug, and some people even said the Allied victory was due to penicillin. After the war, Mr. Fleming, Mr. Florey and Mr. Chain received the Nobel Prize in medicine.
But the war between mankind and bacteria is not over. Penicillin-resistant bacteria began appearing in the 1950s. Although new and more efficient antibiotics were developed consecutively, hardier strains of bacteria also continued to appear.
Bacteria resistant to all existing antibiotics are spreading in Korean hospitals. As in the past, a new antibiotic that can kill these bacteria will probably be developed soon, and stronger bacteria that are resistant to that new antibiotic will emerge.
It is clear that the excessive use of antibiotics is a major cause of this vicious circle. Since Koreans want to receive antibiotics even for colds, viral infections that antibiotics cannot cure, the number of penicillin-resistant bacteria in our environment is increasing. It is time for doctors, pharmacists and the public to open their eyes.
The writer is a Berlin correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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