Drugs Dug from the Earth

Every pharmaceutical company raced to find new antibiotic compounds. Bristol-Meyers Pharmaceuticals

In the wake of Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered that mold growing on rotting fruit produces large amounts of the antibiotic.

In the wake of Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered that mold growing on rotting fruit produces large amounts of the antibiotic.

sent envelopes to all of its stockholders with instructions to collect soil samples from their neighborhoods. Other companies contacted missionaries in far-off places, foreign news correspondents, airline pilots, and deep-sea divers in their search for a mold that might lead to a new treatment.

In 1943 Dr. Paul Burkholder at Yale University sent out plastic mailing tubes to everyone he knew and received more than seven thousand soil samples in return. One soil sample sent from Venezuela contained a powerful antibiotic that was eventually developed into the drug called Chloromycetin. It killed many different kinds of microbes, including the deadly bacteria that caused Rocky Mountain spotted fever and typhus.

Dr. Selman Waksman at Rutgers University worked for the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Company. He tested the mold found in the throat of a New Jersey chicken. It contained a compound called streptomycin that killed the tuberculosis bacillus—something penicillin could not do.

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