It was the closest thing to a miracle that the medical community had seen in centuries. Lingering in mold in a laboratory, a substance that promised cures for a host of illnesses that had ravaged the population. In her series, "Antibiotics: The Broken Promise," our Katie Gibas says the "wonder drug" changed the landscape of medicine for the 20th Century, but also set the stage for medicine's most serious challenge in the 21st.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Retired Pediatrician Dr. Frederick Roberts said, "Medicine was wonderful. It was the best there was in the world. We were on top of everything. No one knew more than we did in the United State of America. We thought. How wrong we were. How things changed both for the better and for the worse."
Dr. Roberts has seen a lot in his more than six decades as a pediatrician. He remembers life as a child before antibiotics.
"We had illnesses that were so terrible and so devastating, children and adults were dying of the pneumonias, the mastoid diseases, the meningitis, all the things that ravaged human beings," he said.
Scientists had been searching for an answer to cure patients for centuries. In the late 1800s, the research really took off. But it wasn’t until the 1940s that there was any sort of relief. The days before antibiotics were often just trial and error medicine with home and natural remedies.
"There wasn't much you could do," Dr. Roberts said. "That's why the major things that were done in the past are things that we look at with contempt now. They used to bleed the patient. George Washington died, I'm sure, from efforts of his doctor rather than from the illness he had."
Dr. Helen Jacoby, St. Joe's Infectious Disease Medical Director, said, "They would inject the bacteria into animals, a horse for instance. The horse would then make antibodies to the infection. They would then take antibodies from the horse and inject these into people."
Dr. Mark Polhemus, Upstate Infectious Disease Specialist, said, "For abscesses, you had to drain them, for teeth, you had to pull them. For fingers, hands, legs, that were infected, you had to cut them off."
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered Penicillin when he found mold growing on his culture plates after returning to his lab from a month-long vacation. But it wasn’t until more than a decade later in 1943 that the drug was able to be mass-produced for patient use.
Dr. Roberts retired as Central New York’s longest serving pediatrician last summer, at age 92. When he began his practice in 1946, antibiotics were just starting to be used widespread.
He said, "They thought you could clean out the whole closet of germs. All you had to do was take a squirt of this magic drug and zippo! You were in business forever."
And for a while, antibiotics did seem to heal all.
Dr. Roberts said, "That was a major, major breakthrough, and suddenly we had some really potent medications that treated numerous conditions."
Dr. Polhemus said, "I don't think anybody really knew anything about antibiotics. They knew that they helped infections, but initially nobody knew the breadth of what it was, so antibiotics were used for everything that could be considered an infection."
After just four years, Penicillin seemed to be losing its effectiveness.
Dr. Roberts said, "The bugs got smart and they developed resistance. And the doses that we gave originally were trivial."
Dr. Polhemus said, "Organisms since the dawn of time have been trying to figure out a way to outlast the immune system or whatever is killing them. The same thing happened with antibiotics."
Dr. Brad Spellberg, UCLA Professor of Medicine, said, “In 1945, Alexander Fleming who discovered Penicillin gave an interview to the New York Times in which he warned that physicians were wasting Penicillin and if we didn’t stop over-using it, we were going to lose it to resistance. That was 70 years ago."
Within a few years, that prophecy was fulfilled as Penicillin stopped working all together to treat Staph infections.
Dr. Jacoby said, "Bacteria multiply very, very rapidly and there's always a certain rate of mutant bacteria that develop. And it's only a matter of time before some mutant bacteria that are resistant to that antibiotic develop and they're the only ones that aren't killed by the antibiotic. So gradually, over time, the more those bacteria see the antibiotic, the more any mutated bacteria can grow and eventually, that's the only version of that bacterium that you see."
Despite resistance, dozens of pharmaceutical companies continued to produce antibiotics that were able to keep the bugs in check. But around the 1980s, their focus shifted to more lucrative options. Resistance continued to grow.