Myth has it that penicillin was discovered by accident, and voila, we suddenly had a miracle drug. But the true story is far more complex. There were many dead ends, near misses, even patient deaths, before penicillin became penicillin. There is an entertaining lecture, well worth reading, by an unknown author on the history of the discovery of penicillin available on the internet. It seems to have been a lecture in a botany class at the University of Hawaii (link).
It begins with the story of a man called Morton Paterson, a retired philosophy professor, who as a child suffered from a bone infection acquired through a cut on his knee. Here is the story in his own words:
The cut had become infected, and I had blood poison[ing]. For a few days I guess I was "out of it", in a coma, and hung in the balance between life and death. I was diagnosed as having osteomyelitis, which means "bone infection". Apparently what happens with osteomyelitis is that the infected blood seeks out a part of the body which is already weak for some reason. In my case that happened to be the socket in my left hip.
[T]hey knew they had to operate fast to stop the infection before it traveled to a vital organ. That led to three months in hospital. The surgeon was Dr. Mowat, and I remember him as a very kind and soft-spoken man. He had to scrape out the infected bone, but then leave the large incision open so the nurses could pack it every day with fresh gauze. Later I was told that the reason for not closing up the incision was that oxygen (fresh air) was needed to clear up the infection. Without oxygen the infection would stay in the bone, and be a continuing threat.
I've never been so scared in all my life. I didn't know why my hip was so sore and not getting better, and could tell that Dr. Mowat and my parents were pretty worried. As the nurses peeled away the old packing and re-packed my hip with fresh gauze they tried their best to cheer me up and not let on they were worried. I remember them saying, "Now be a brave little soldier, Mortie!"
Surgery had to be performed a few more times to clean out bone chips in the incision. All I can remember about those extra surgeries was being wheeled out of my room, down the corridor, and into a large bright "operating room". Suddenly a doctor (I later learned he or she is called the anesthetist) behind me would cover my face with a cloth and tell me start counting. Then the doctor would a couple of drops of ether onto the cloth. I would get to about 3 before falling asleep.
Looking back to that operating room experience these sixty-three years later I still remember my panic, crying out when the cloth went over my face. Ether had the most sickening smell I ever smelled, and I guess the scariest part was not knowing when they'd cart me down the corridor again and have that awful cloth suddenly draped over my face. Another thing about ether was that I'd be so sick when I came to back in my room. The smell seemed to linger forever, and I kept bringing up. The nurses would give me a pill to help me sleep, so eventually I'd doze off.
When the infection was finally contained (by mid-summer), less and less packing was put into the incision till the day finally came that I could go home on little crutches that I still have.
A few years later, Mortie Paterson's osteomyelitis returned. But by then, penicillin was widely available. With antibiotic treatment the infection disappeared in a few days and never came back.
The story caught my eye because little Mortie's suffering through months of excruciating treatments is very similar to the suffering that cancer patients have to undergo today with chemotherapy and radiation. When the paradigm changed, and penicillin became freely available, the suffering caused by infections became a thing of the past. I hope to see a similar paradigm change with cancer in my lifetime.