Centuries before the actual discovery of penicillin, many ancient cultures were using mouldy food to treat infection without understanding how it worked
“Ancient times Greece & India Many ancient cultures, including the ancient Greeks and ancient India, already used moulds and other plants to treat infection. This worked because some moulds produce antibiotic substances. However, they could not distinguish or distill the active component in the moulds.
“”traditional medicine”” Serbia & Greece There are many old remedies where mould is involved. In Serbia and in Greece, mouldy bread was a traditional treatment for wounds and infections.
“”traditional”” Russia Russian peasants used warm soil as treatment for infected wounds.
c. 150 BC Sri Lanka Soldiers in the army of king Dutugemunu (161–137 BC) are recorded to have stored oil cakes (a traditional Sri Lankan sweetmeat) for long periods in their hearth lofts before embarking on their campaigns, in order to make a poultice of the cakes to treat wounds. It is assumed that the oil cakes served the dual functions of desiccant and antibacterial.
1600s Poland Wet bread was mixed with spider webs (containing spores) to treat wounds. The technique was mentioned by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his 1884 book With Fire and Sword.
1640 England The idea of using mould as a form of treatment was recorded by apothecaries, such as John Parkington, King’s Herbarian, who advocated the use of mould in his 1640 book on pharmacology.
1870 United Kingdom Sir John Scott Burdon-Sanderson, who started out at St. Mary’s Hospital 1852–1858 and as lecturer there 1854–1862 observed in 1870 that culture fluid covered with mould would produce no bacteria.
1871 United Kingdom Joseph Lister, an English surgeon and the father of modern antisepsis, was prompted by Burdon-Sanderson’s discovery to investigate and describe in 1871 that urine samples contaminated with mould did not allow the growth of bacteria. He also described the antibacterial action on human tissue on what he called Penicillium glaucum. A nurse at King’s College Hospital whose wounds did not respond to any antiseptic, was then given another substance that cured her, and Lister’s registrar informed her that it was called Penicillium.
1874 United Kingdom William Roberts observed in 1874 that bacterial contamination is generally absent in cultures of the mould Penicillium glaucum.
1875 United Kingdom John Tyndall followed up on Burdon-Sanderson’s work and demonstrated to the Royal Society the antibacterial action of the Penicillium fungus in 1875.