Monday, March 1, 2010

A guide to growing your own penicillin: treat illness, save lives, make bundles of money. No more running to the doctor like a wimp!

Disclaimer: the title of this post is a joke. Here you will learn to make penicillin if you want to, but you must not sell it. And if you use it, you are on your own. This post is only for fun. (Ha ha.) If you need an antibiotic, go to a doctor. Use only as directed. I only saw the title on a google article and thought it was funny. My alternative title was "Turn Mold into Gold" but that was a bit too disgusting. Second alternative title was "Fun with Flora" but that was too suggestive for my gentle readership. Be warned!

It occurs to me that some of you may not realize that stale bread is your friend. Or perhaps you are the kind of person who, when performing the annual cleaning of the refrigerator, throws away that old forgotten lemon which has turned a fuzzy blue on one end? You may not even be a connoisseur of blue cheese.

Try not to think of Athlete's Foot as I continue to assure you that fungi is your friend. (Of course I meant "are".)

Most people credit Alexander Fleming with discovering penicillin. In truth, penicillin has been used as an antibiotic for at least two thousand years; they just didn't call it that. It was noted by scientists before Fleming (Pasteur and Lister, to give two examples) that bacteria wouldn't grow on penicillin. Indeed, if one placed bacteria in a petri dish containing a solution of penicillin, the bacteria would die. The import of this little chance discovery has had earthshaking implications. I don't need to tell you that.

If you are taking notes, penicillin is mostly effective only against gram positive bacteria (staph, strep) and is not that effective against gram negative bacteria (or other fungi, for that matter.)

In ancient cultures, including ancient Greece, molds were used (topically) to treat infections. Sometimes this worked if they got the right mold. Of course, they didn't know WHY it worked, and neither were they able to identify and extract the active ingredient.

As early as 61 BC, soldiers used to store oil cakes for long periods of time and take them into battle to treat infections caused by wounds. These were also used topically, as a poultice, rather than ingested.

I don't want to insult your intelligence, because all of you already know how to grow mold. Whole wheat bread (better than white bread), citrus (lemons, oranges) are what you are looking for. The blue veins in bleu cheese are already penicillin mold - just cut them out and rub them on the wound (or bind them on the wound) or eat them. (I'm not suggesting you do any of this, that's for sure. You must make your own choices. My suggestions are only if you are out in a jungle with no doctor available, but have access to a French cheese gourmet shop nearby the jungle.)

Grow the mold in a moist (humid) dark environment with air but not too much air. (A bit close and oppressive like a greenhouse. Or a ziplock bag, I guess.) You are trying to culture a mold called penicillium chrysogenum (formerly called penicillium notatum). This mold excretes Penicillin, but you are not likely to master the art of extracting only the penicillin part in your kitchen lab, so this technique is limited primarily to putting the entire mold on the infected wound as is. It is at your own peril that you do this, or if you decide to take it internally (decide to eat it or make a broth and drink it.) This is also not the time to discover you are allergic to penicillin.

I can't stress too often that, where modern medical science is available, a purer form of this crud is preferable. But what if you are shipwrecked on an island with a bad wound and only a piece of old bread? Huh? See? Or what if the nuclear holocaust has contaminated all the drug stores and you are the only person still alive and have just stepped on a rusty nail in the debris? Just think about that, and this post really becomes useful.

Before the discovery of penicillin, moldy cheese was used as a cure-all by some folks. In fact, it was the "miracle drug" before the real miracle drug of (extracted and refined) penicillin. Eating moldy cheese would cure almost anything (except moldy cheese poisoning.) In ancient times it was believed, since moldy cheese cured so many things, that cheese protected one's soul. Some ancient cultures (not cheese cultures) wore cheese bracelets and necklaces to guard against evil spirits. The mold on them probably repelled evil spirits only by their evil smell.

To this day, the word "cheese" is invoked immediately before having a photo taken, in order to guard against trapping the subject's soul.

Would I lie to you?


  1. Won't help my husband when he's all survival-ly because he's allergic to mold (and penicillin as well).

    I've actually read some of this before. That doesn't mean it's true; I didn't verify it, just that I've read it before.

  2. We did the growing of mouldy bread thing at school. It makes you wonder, doesn't it, if some other things deemed old wives' tales could hold some truth. Anyone for hair of toad and tail of newt?

    I know about Lister (Listerine mouthwash, and Listeria, both named after him). He retired to Walmer in Kent. Harvey (blood circulation) was born in Folkestone, also in Kent. There were some famous medics around these here parts.

  3. @Stephanie - you don't have to verify my posts. But just for laughs, where do YOU think penicillin comes from? :)

    @A. - It DOES make me wonder, though not tail of newt. And not to mention the Lister Bag, sometimes misspelled Lyster Bag. The guy was amazing. Harvey was amazing. Kent is amazing. :)

  4. Nice post - am off to find some blue cheese (not difficult in the French part of Switzerland) and cantaloupe to grow the mould on.

    See also here for some more of the story, and here for a 1947 paper on penicillin production and extraction.

    Seems that you can already use the liquid excreted by the mould as some kind of crude penicillin solution - I think I'll grow my own bacteria cultures and try that out. Then I'll grow penicillin resistant bacteria and take over the world! Muhahaha!

  5. I'm allergic to penicillin too. But my dangerous reaction to penicillin happened when I was a baby, over half a century ago. I've asked doctors whether it's possible to test me to see if that allergy is still there, and still life-threatening.
    Every one has said words to the effect of "there are plenty of other antibiotics, no need to worry" I'm not worried. More curious. But if that allergy has left me, then my choice of possible antibiotics would be significantly wider.
    I am also allergic, badly so, to some other moulds, most notably, Aspergillus, and cladesporium.
    I can very definitely recommend not getting aspergillus spores in your lungs. Breath white-hot molten metal drops instead, it will feel much nicer.

  6. As for penicillin.
    After Florey's clinical trials showed that it saved lives, repeatedly and reliably, there was a rush to be able to produce it. The second world war was penicillin's battleground too. The drug was difficult and slow to produce, and so it was reclaimed out of the urine of patients. Florey and his team were growing the mould in an array of hospital bedpans, desperately trying to find higher yields, better strains.
    War brought resources and funding, the team visited America, where they set up a research base in Peoria, illinois, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
    A lab worker was given the job of searching for mouldy items in order to try find a better penicillin.
    She brought in a decaying canteloupe which yielded the best results so far, and on the strength of that, the team took over the fermenting vats of a brewery in order to produce the drug.

    The first full scale clinical use was on U.S. eighth air-force crews, operating out of eastern England. Septicaemia following wounding was the biggest killer, not the wound itself. Penicillin could stop septicaemia, and retrieve a dying man.
    At the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, deaths of women in the days following childbirth were dramatically reduced, Puerperal fever was no longer a sure killer.
    I recommend the book on this subject, by Richard Gordon, "The Invisible Victory", which I read many years ago.

  7. I can't imagine who among us qualifies as one of your "gentle readership."
    I need to go clean out my refrigerator and start packaging some antibiotic. I am not allergic to penicillin. I am, however, allergic to sulfa.

  8. @Boris Legradic - Thanks for the links. When I started reading about this subject, I really got sucked in and found it interesting. But then, I am a deviant.

    @Soubriquet - You know a lot about this, as well you should, from your own personal experience. I never read far enough to find out why some people can't take pennicillin, if the reason is even known. Like you say, it's good they have so many alternatives now. I can't imagine living in the old days and dying of something like boil or a cut from a dirty knife. I read where Saddam Hussein used to cut people up and then throw them in sewer water, wait for the gross infections to take root, then interrogate them again while poking at their swollen red wounds. But then, he used to enjoy watching people running themselves through with swords to show their allegiance.

    @Janet - Allergic to Sulpher? Aren't we all?




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