Greenwood: Antimicrobial Drugs – Chronicle of a Twentieth Century Medical Triumph

This is not meant to be a book review.  I just want to express my gratitude to Prof. Greenwood for writing a book about the remarkable story of antibiotic discovery and development of the last century.  It is clearly a labor of love, written with knowledge, enthusiasm, wisdom and perspective.

Antimicrobial Drugs: / Greenwood
Greenwood – Antimicrobial Drugs

He takes us on a journey to many countries introduces us to researchers and their teams who worked on hundreds of antibiotic leads, some turning into useful drugs, others long forgotten.  All this is distilled into a 430 page book, replete with facts and vignettes of the personalities involved, their characters and flaws, their work conditions and funding problems.

I had forgotten that there once was a drug spelled az”th”reonam, that a promising drug called latamoxef / moxalactam ran into toxicity problems (MTT side chain!) , that ampiicillin, amoxicillin, and amoxiclav were Beecham success stories in perfect succession, and that Drs. Schatz and Waksman fought in court over who should rightfully get the credit for discovering streptomycin.

This book reminded me of James Burke’s “Connections” in the Scientific American where the author tells the story of serendipitous encounters which nonetheless triggered advances in science, in the arts or in politics, almost like the butterfly effect in chaos theory.

“Antimicrobial Drugs” is the product of a truly encyclopedic mind. Greenwood is a researcher and teacher who excels in telling us about connections between scientists.  Besides persistence and scientific genius, he gives due credit to the role of chance observations  A major discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize may have come about because of shear coincidence.

He takes us back to a time when collaborations between academia and industry were less burdened by legal matters than nowadays and when governments supported international exchange of data and know-how to further a worthwhile goal, as it happened with penicillin production on an industrial scale.

I don’t want to give the impression that this book is too academic, or overwhelming in scope, depth or detail. Rest assured, this is not the case.  The writing is elegant and pulls the reader ‘in”.  With the author’s profound knowledge of the subject matter ‘Antimicrobial Drugs’ becomes more than just a collection of facts and data.  It is actually a highly entertaining book as well.

   Not for the first time in the history of antimicrobial chemotherapy, over-enthusiastic acceptance by prescribers of valuable drugs has jeopardized their long-term prospects

I had fun reading the chapters, learning much about the people who gave us the medicines we take so much for granted nowadays. From today’s perspective where antibiotic resistance is so much becoming a problem again, we wish for a new ‘Oxford group’ to work on the next generation of miracle drugs and more prudent use of such valuable assets.


David Greenwood: Antimicrobial Drugs. Chronicle of a Twentieth Century Medical Triumph.  Oxford University Press.  2008

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