Curators are always excited when they make a “find”, especially when that find more or less just arrives at our doorstep: an ampoule containing some of the first experimental penicillin produced in Canada!
How did it come to the Museum of Health Care? In the late 1990s the Museum received a transfer of artefacts and archival documents from Queen’s University (Kingston, Canada), known as the Faculty of Medicine Collection. Most of the objects were shifted to the Museum at that time, but a few remained on display in the medical school on campus. Recently it was decided to move the remaining pieces to the Museum for processing and preservation. Among the Victorian surgeon’s kits, textbooks, and medical student graduation programmes was a nine centimetre glass vial holding a white powder and a typewritten file card:“The last of twelve ampoules containing the first batch of PENICILLIN (10,000 units) made experimentally by Ayerst, McKenna, Harrison of Montreal. The untried, unproved drug was used successfully (but unofficially) to save the life of a 16 year old boy, critically ill with septicemia following a ruptured appendix in the summer of 1940.”
According to the card, the sample was given to Queen’s by one of its grads, Dr. C.W. Kelley (1928), former chief of surgery, Ottawa Civic Hospital.
The anti-bacterial function of penicillin was first discovered in 1928 by English bacteriologist Alexander Fleming, but its clinical potential was not realised until 1940 when pathologist Howard Florey and biochemist Ernst Chain were able to extract, purify, and produce the drug in their laboratory. This short video explains the discovery of penicillin:
What makes our penicillin sample particularly rare is that the isolation of the antibiotic’s active ingredient in England appears to have taken place only a short while before this ampoule was produced. Founded in 1925, Ayerst, McKenna and Harrison was a young Canadian pharmaceutical firm – in 1931 it set up the first commercial biological laboratory in the country. Penicillin was still an experimental drug and clearly its use on a teenager in 1940 was a gamble, but fortunately one with a happy outcome, given how unauthorised was its administration.
During the Second World War pharmaceutical companies in several countries rushed to produce penicillin for soldiers – the antibiotic’s ability to greatly reduce mortality rates resulting from infected wounds, unclean surgery, and infectious diseases was a clear advantage on the battlefield. The war galvanised the mass production of many drugs and penicillin became available on a wide scale to the general public between 1944 and 1946. This 20th –century “magic bullet” has long been an effective weapon against pneumonia, anthrax, tetanus, syphilis, and diphtheria. The little penicillin ampoule buried in a university exhibit showcase – what has turned out to be an important treasure highlighting a significant development in Canadian healthcare history.