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Although many people believe that penicillin was the first antibiotic, they are mistaken. The history of antibiotics stretches back for several thousand years. Ancient Egyptian, Persian and Greek physicians treated patients with compresses and tonics made from a variety of herbs, molds and organic compounds, and any of these might be considered the first antibiotic. Throughout the centuries, doctors sought to cure infections with assorted natural remedies even though they had no knowledge of bacteria.
Early treatment of infections ranged from ineffectual to dangerous. Some purported cures were more superstitious than scientific, and the modern patient would shrink from some of the more bizarre treatments. Ointments and potions made from comfrey or hypericum might have had some effect as an antibiotic, but other balms, such as those consisting primarily of wine, were most valuable as astringents. Sleeping with snakes in a temple, applying salves made from animal dung and the wearing of magical talismans were among the treatments practiced.
In the late 1800s, researchers discovered the connection between germs and infections. Their findings were met with skepticism by many medical practitioners. It was difficult for established doctors to accept that something that they could not see was responsible for some of the diseases and secondary infections that were killing their patients. Therefore, they had little confidence in the effectiveness of early antibiotics.
The dubious physicians had cause to question the first antibiotic that was developed in modern times. It was called pyocyanase, and it made its debut in 1888. It effectively killed a broad spectrum of bacteria, but it also was toxic to humans. The drug saw little use except as a final effort in patients who would surely die, regardless of whether pyocyanase was administered.
Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in 1928, found an antibiotic in 1920 that he named lysozyme. Like pyocyanase, however, the drug's toxicity precluded its use. Fleming's discovery eight years later of a mold that was lethal to bacteria would eventually yield penicillin. The first antibiotic discovered in modern times that was safe for people to use would not be manufactured until 1939, however, and virtually all production initially was reserved for military use. Civilians had little access to penicillin until World War II ended.
Sulfonamides were the first antibiotics administered orally in modern times that were not harmful to the patient. These drugs were discovered in Germany during the 1930s. About the same time, the topical antibiotic tyrothricin was discovered. The use of tyrothricin was largely limited to treating infections of the skin that resulted from contaminated soil.
Since the 1950s, new antibiotics, both synthetic and natural, have been developed at an extremely brisk rate. Bacteria mutate quickly, becoming resistant or immune to antibiotics over a relatively short period. In a sense, the history of antibiotics has continued to be written.