Human health and living standards have been greatly improved by the widespread diffusion and development of antibiotics. This article examines the history of early antibiotics led by Alexander Fleming and how intellectual property rights played a role in their diffusion and development. Although the pharmaceutical industry is often seen as one industry in which patents are essential for innovation incentives today, patent incentives played a subtle role during the first years of the antibiotic revolution.

Patenting the drugs’ active ingredients and producing exclusively  became a key part of commercial strategy for most new antibiotics drugs. In the past, process and product patents were licensed to other producers by the owners. With new antibiotics firms began to use active ingredient patents to enforce monopoly positions; this led to concerns about rising drug prices.

doctor's desk

Alexander Fleming was the hero behind the discovery of penicillin. A doctor specialized in bacteriology, Fleming in 1945, received a much-deserved Nobel Prize. The discovery of antibiotics brought a revolution in the field of medicine and gave hope to humanity. Before antibiotics were discovered, people could not cope with severe bacterial diseases. It could easily be said that bacteria was waging war against humanity, and people had lost all hope.

Table of Content


Early Years

Early life career

Road leading to Penicillin

Overview of Alexander Fleming And his Antibiotics Patent

Sir Alexander Fleming, a pharmacist, is well-known for his penicillin discovery. His antibiotic has saved many lives and has been widely used worldwide. Fleming could be a very wealthy man if the substance had been licensed and controlled. But he knew that penicillin was able to treat diseases like syphilis and gangrene, and therefore had to let it go. 

He transferred the patents to the US and UK government, where penicillin was mass-produced in time to help many of those who were wounded during World War II. Since then, it has saved millions of lives and has become an extremely common prescription and OTC drug.

Early Years of Alexander Fleming – How he stumbled across the antibiotics invention

The story of Penicillin is not the story of one person but of at least three. Among those who made it a reality are also, Sir Ernst Chain and Baron Howard Florey.

From the beginning, penicillin patents were controversial. Chain believed that patenting penicillin was vital. Florey and other people considered patents unethical because they could save lives. Penicillin, challenged the notion that a natural product of another living microorganism, a patent could be granted. At the time, the dominant view in Great Britain was that a process could be patented but a process could not. 

Andrew Jackson Moyer and Merck each filed patents for the penicillin production process with no opposition. British scientists eventually had to pay royalties for the England discovery. Penicillin production was more than historical interest.

Early life career of alexander fleming, the inventor of antibiotics

Penicillin is a modern miracle. To bring penicillin to life, its creators crossed borders and continents. Chain had fled persecution, Florey had discovered a new world from outback Australia and Alexander Fleming had made a name for himself from humble beginnings. They were all of their time, but they lived in extraordinary circumstances and worked to alleviate suffering in the world.

The colossal effect of penicillin led to the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1945 being awarded to Alexander Fleming, Chain, and Florey. The first antibiotics were created when penicillin was isolated from microorganisms. Researchers discovered other antibiotics using similar production and discovery techniques in the 1940s/50s. These included streptomycin and chloramphenicol, as well as vancomycin and erythromycin.

Road leading to the invention of Penicillin and the penicillin patent

Fleming was a trained bacteriologist and was working at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. In 1928, Alexander Fleming noticed a plate culture of Staphylococcus contaminated with a blue-green mold. He noticed that colonies of bacteria were being destroyed by the mold.

Fleming was curious and decided to grow the mold in pure cultures. He was able to observe that the colonies of the bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus were being destroyed in the presence of the mold Penicillium noatum. This proved, at least in principle, that there was an antibacterial agent. Fleming published his 1929 findings and named penicillin. However, Fleming knew that the discovery could have therapeutic value if it was made in large quantities. It would take years for Alexander Fleming to make his discoveries practical and widespread.

A doctor taking notes

The concentrations were not high enough to have any significant effects on the infected parts of the body. Nonetheless, his findings were submitted in a 1929 paper in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology.

The experiments weren’t taken much further until the late 1930s

When Howard Walter Florey forged a culture that encouraged teamwork and collaboration. This was to be his greatest strength, which led to an amazing breakthrough. Florey started a series of research projects while working on a tight budget and by hiring talented post-graduates who had their own research grants,

One of them was to determine if there was clinical value in working on the enzyme Lysozyme and how it dissolves bacteria. Florey was interested in the topic before but wasn’t sure of its significance.

This was until Ernst Boris Chain, a talented biochemist and German Jewish refugee, joined his ranks. Chain, who had just completed his second PhD from Cambridge, came across Alexander Fleming’s 1929 paper while looking through the literature about lysozyme. It described how the penicillium mold seemed to kill any pathogenic bacteria within its vicinity. Chain was convinced that Penicillin’s instability to be used could be solved. After many collaborations and experiments, a biochemical breakthrough was finally discovered. A change of substance stabilised of Penicillin into a pure form to be effectively used.

the Antibiotics Patent

Fleming’s work on staphylococcal bacteria led him to discover that bacteria could be killed by bacteria. He produced several different types of bacteria that killed staphylococci, and he observed that some of these cultures could kill other types of bacteria as well. He called this ability “antibiotic” because it could be used against bacterial infections.

In 1929, Fleming published his findings in a paper titled “On the Antibiotic Action of Bacillus Ceccidii.” In 1930, he published another paper in which he described how certain enzymes kill bacteria by cutting off their energy source or by interfering with their metabolic processes. He named these enzymes penicillinase and beta-lactamase after two kinds of penicillin-producing bacteria he had isolated during his research into antibiotic action.

The Second World War was raging, resulting in a significant loss of life. This made it imperative that new medical interventions were developed to help the wounded. Now, the question was how to make Penicillin even more effective.

This is where the industry comes in. Florey needed funds and an expansion of infrastructure to scale production. The war in Iraq had severely limited the availability of resources and infrastructure in the UK, so Florey turned to the United States for help. The next challenge was technical. How to make large quantities of this new drug?

The War Production Board supported American industry and solved this problem during World War II. Deep fermentation was used to produce large quantities of the product needed for the war effort.

The power of Penicillin was now evident to industrialists, not just scientists and clinicians.

It was ironic that Florey was discouraged from obtaining a Penicillin patent terming it as because unethical. Instead, Andrew J Moyer, an American microbiologist, filed a patent in the US for methods of mass producing Penicillin in 1945. After the war, the UK began to recognize the importance of industry and patent protection.