Preventing and Treating Infectious Diseases
From rabies and polio to syphilis and staph infections, many infectious diseases that once instilled widespread fear among human populations have been tamed by the inventors of vaccines, for preventing disease, and drugs like antibiotics, for treating disease.
Louis Pasteur demonstrated that microorganisms cause disease and discovered how to make vaccines from weakened, or attenuated, microbes. He developed the earliest vaccines to prevent against fowl cholera, anthrax, and rabies.
In 1906 Paul Ehrlich prophesied the role of modern-day pharmaceutical research, predicting that chemists in their laboratories would soon be able to produce substances that would seek out specific disease-causing agents. He called these substances “magic bullets.”
Gerhard Domagk developed Prontosil, the first sulfa drug, introduced in 1935. Sulfa drugs, all of which are related to the compound sulfanilamide, provided the first successful therapies for many bacterial diseases. As such, they proved to be the forerunners of antibiotics.
In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, though he did not realize the full significance of his discovery for at least another decade. He eventually received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1945.
Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were the scientists who followed up most successfully on Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin and shared with him the 1945 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine.
Selman Waksman mined pharmaceuticals from the soil using methods that have become classic. He applied his in-depth knowledge of all classes of soil microbes—bacteria, fungi, and especially actinomycetes—to the fight against disease.
Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Brown discovered one of the first effective antifungal medicines, nystatin, in 1950, while working for the Division of Laboratories and Research of the New York State Department of Health.
Jonas Salk became a national hero when he allayed the fear of polio with his vaccine, approved in 1955. Although it was the first polio vaccine, it was not to be the last; Albert Sabin introduced an oral vaccine in the 1960s that replaced Salk’s.