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The Rise and Fall of Antibiotics

They started out packing a punch, but antibiotics are not invincible.

Joseph Lister

Brown Brothers


English surgeon Joseph Lister describes his use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic during surgery, eradicating microbes and preventing infection.


German physician Robert Koch publishes work proving that bacteria cause disease, with anthrax bacilli as Exhibit A; Koch’s four postulates for determining the cause of new microbial diseases are still used today.

Alexander Fleming



Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming finds that a Penicillium notatum mold growing on a lab plate full of Staphylococcus kills the bacteria around it. He names the active substance penicillin, but because it’s so difficult to purify large amounts, he drops the research.


In a lab at Bayer in Germany, Gerhard Domagk discovers that a sulfa drug, later called Prontosil, defeats streptococci in mice and is later found to work in humans.


Dennis Kunkel/Phototake


French microbiologist Rene Dubos discovers gramicidin in soil, ultimately the primary source of many antibiotics; Oxford scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain figure out how to produce substantial quantities of penicillin, leading to its industrial production.


Frans Lanting/Corbis


Most major classes of antibiotics, including the aminoglycosides, cephalosporins and tetracyclines, are introduced.


After a number of years, the FDA approves a new class of antibiotics, oxazolidinones, for clinical use.


The FDA approves a second new class of antibiotics, lipopeptides.


With antibiotic resistance on the rise, the Strategies to Address Antimicrobial Resistance (STAAR) Act is introduced in Congress.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Digital Vision Photography/Veer


The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions considers incentives such as federal grants, tax credits and data exclusivity protection to encourage pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics.


The War on Superbugs

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

As medicine battles antibiotic resistance, tougher drugs breed still more deadly bacteria. New approaches could break the cycle.

Out With the Big, In with the Little

Small biotechs are picking up antibiotic research where Big Pharma left off. Will their efforts be enough to beat resistance?

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