Antibiotics: how biochemists helped to survive the war

On November 24, 1944, Soviet troops liberated Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It was during the Baltic offensive operation that the newly obtained Soviet antibiotic, krustosin, an analogue of penicillin, was used for the first time in the field. Thanks to him, mortality from wounds and infections in the army decreased by 80%, and the number of amputations of limbs – by 20-30%. The microbiologist Zinaida Ermolyeva, whom foreign colleagues respectfully called “Madame Penicillin”, led the introduction of the drug.

Strategic drug

Gunshot and shrapnel wounds most often cause the death of soldiers, and also lead to disability of those who survived. Moreover, not only blood loss in the first hours after injury is terrible, but also subsequent infections that lead to the death of people after surgery. Currently, when there is a war in Ukraine, all this is becoming relevant again.

Penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, discovered in 1928 by the Scotsman Alexander Fleming, coped with this problem. In 1943, the technology for obtaining the drug was transferred to American scientists, who established its mass production in the United States. At the same time, Soviet doctors had only limited access to the new drug, which was supplied to the country in small quantities, and the technology for obtaining penicillin remained unknown.

During the war, domestic microbiologists faced the task of creating an analogue of the drug in the shortest possible time and setting up its release to minimize human losses. Microbiologist Zinaida Ermolyeva was assigned to lead the project. By that time, she already had a successful experience at the front, she managed to stop the outbreak of cholera and typhoid fever in Stalingrad in 1942.

Double victory

In the same year, Zinaida Ermolyeva returned to Moscow, where she led the work on the creation of the drug. The primary task of her team was to find a special type of mold that can be used as a producer of penicillin. According to the memoirs of Tamara Balezina, an employee of the laboratory, the fungus needed for production was searched everywhere it could appear: in the grass, on the ground, even on the walls of bomb shelters. Fungal cultures were isolated from the samples collected by the staff and their effect on pathogenic staphylococcus bacteria, which die upon contact with an antibiotic, was checked.

Soon, testing of one of the samples showed a positive result, and already in 1943, mass production of the first domestic antibiotic called “krustosin” was launched in the USSR. The healing mold was grown on the surface of a nutrient solution located in a special laboratory dish resembling wide pallets. Scientists called them “mattresses”. The manufactured medicine was immediately tested on several severe patients.

Antibiotics: how biochemists helped to survive the war

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