Would you be alive today, if you had been born before penicillin?

AntibioticsI’m sure I don’t know anyone who hasn’t taken antibiotics at some point in their life. At a minimum they shorten the misery of an illness, in many cases lives are saved. Most of us have no concept of a world without the magical healing powers of penicillin.

My Dad told me a story recently that made me realize how powerfully our world has changed since antibiotics became widely available. In the fall of 1948 he was absent from school for 6 weeks with pneumonia. He was a senior in high school. When he finally returned to school, one of his classmates casually remarked “oh, we thought you’d died“, as if that was the expected outcome. My Dad wasn’t too surprised by the comment, but it did shock him enough to remember it all these many years later.

Many people died when they got that sick. It was not unexpected. They didn’t have broad access to antibiotics yet, leaving doctors with little ammunition against many bacteria. We did some googling on the topic and learned that the first patent for a manufacturing process making penicillin affordable for the masses, was registered in May 1948. During the war, penicillin was apparently used for treating wounded soldiers, so the word was starting to spread about this new miracle drug.

When I shared this story with my mother-in-law she told me about a class mate who contracted a life-threatening infection in one of her legs after a serious car accident in the mid-40s. It was so severe that an uncle of hers in the army officially adopted her, to open up access to antibiotics as a dependent of military personnel.

In the late 1940s my father-in-law was in medical school. He was entering the medical field during the time of this watershed discovery. It changed the odds of recovery dramatically, but it never did change his fear of an alternative world without it. To this day, he fusses over us all to wear a hat so we don’t catch cold, don’t sit in a draft, button up coats, don’t breath in cold air directly, don’t get sick! We get lectures about taking antibiotics for granted. They may not work on new more resistant bacteria.

It’s true. We do take many relatively recent modern medical advances, such as antibiotics, for granted. It makes me wonder if I’d be alive today without penicillin? What will life look like if the new “superbugs”, resistant to traditional antibiotics, set us back to a pre-penicillin world?


About lynnmorstead

Writing about the small things that shape our lives
This entry was posted in Drugs, Health & Fitness, Medical, Society, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Would you be alive today, if you had been born before penicillin?

  1. Rhonda says:

    Lauren Belfer’s book, A FIERCE RADIANCE (“pharma drama”) is a wonderful book, fact-based, set at the start of WWII, a time before penicillin, and the race to invent/create antibiotics for the war effort, how easily one could and did die from simple things like a fall and scraped knee with bacteria from the dirt. Below is the NYTimes review. I read it in 2011, but no longer have it.


    Yes, people who long for the “good ole’ days” would not live as long a life as we do today. That would be a very important tradeoff. And yes, very concerned about these new superbugs where antibiotics are not effective.

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