Antibiotics: Britain’s greatest invention?


Invention or discovery? The case is put that sufficient work needed to be done after Fleming’s observation that the Penicillium mould killed bacteria

Broadcaster: BBC2

Year: 2017

Genre: Factual


This clips (8:50) involves former newsreader Angela Rippon putting the case for antibiotics to be the winner of a poll to identify Britain’s Greatest Invention. She has a vested interest in the choice, having been saved from TB as a child. All other inventions being considered (the jet engine, steam engine, fridge, television, mobile phone and concrete) pale into insignificance, she argues, as you cannot benefit from the other inventions suggested if you are dead. This argument may have prevailed, as antibiotics were declared the winner on the night.

In truth this is not a particularly great clip. The opening gambit that “antibiotics literally kill bacteria” is a simplification and the popular myths surrounding the role played by Alexander Fleming are trotted out. There are, however, two features that might make this worth sharing with students.

The first is the debate over whether antibiotics are a discovery or an invention. This is an example of a broader debate about whether natural products are “invented” (this was also at the heart, for example, of the tensions regarding the legitimacy of patenting human genes). Rippon suggests there was sufficient need to technological innovation for antibiotics to be an invention not a discovery. I would have to concur with this view, especially since the fluoroquinolones, my favourite family of “antibiotics”, are in fact entirely man-made.

The second interesting snipped relates to the use of antibiotics in the second world war. The war gave impetus to the development of penicillin as a cure for battlefield injuries. Supplies were very limited, so there was a dilemma when it was observed that the drug also cured sexually transmitted diseases. As the story is told here, the discussions as to whether to use the precious penicillin for treating the injured or those infected through sexual activity went all the way to Churchill to arbitrate. He suggested the penicillin should be given to whoever would contribute more to the war effort, which was taken as a signal to prioritise giving it to those who had gonorrhoea over those with more serious injuries.

There is also an interview with Dr Ian Bedford about research being conducted at the John Innes Centre (Norwich) into using bacteria found on ants as a means to treat other medically-relevant bacteria. Discussion of this work can be seen via this link.


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