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ADVANCE Perspective: Nurses

Penicillin: Before & After the Fire

Published November 5, 2010 12:30 PM by Gail Guterl
We all know Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin; most of us don't know it was 1928. I had to look that up. Also, few of us know when penicillin became a common treatment. There's an interesting and tragic story behind how this miracle drug made its debut to the world.
Early on, support for the production and further development of penicillin was the purview of the U.S. government, which had been persuaded in 1941 by several British chemists to fund its further research and manufacture, according to Stuart B. Levy, MD, in his book, Antibiotic Paradox. The chemists, Howard Florey and Norman Heatley, wanted the U.S. to get involved in mass production to ensure enough antibiotic for treatment of war wounds. Remember World War II had already begun for the British.
The two were persuasive, and soon mass quantities of penicillin were being produced in several laboratories across the country, including Merck & Co. in Rahway, NJ. However, by 1942, Levy says penicillin "was still a highly guarded secret and was reserved for military use only."
Then Nov. 29, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove fire flashed hot and quick in this Boston nightclub. The fire began with a fake palm tree and spread so rapidly that 450 people were trapped and died. Hundreds more were badly burned.
For whatever reason, Massachusetts General Hospital was able to procure a 32-liter supply of a "priceless" drug," according to a newspaper report, which was rushed by police escort from Rahway, NJ, to Boston. This delivery of penicillin is credited with saving numerous Cocoanut Grove burn victims' lives, by combating Staphylococcus aureus and other infections.
While it wasn't planned, the use of penicillin on these burn patients also served as a kind of mass clinical trial, proving it's efficacy in the most trying of conditions. It went on to be used throughout battlefields in World War II, saving many lives.
It can also be credited with saving the lives of two 21st century burn victims, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos. These two Seton Hall University freshmen were badly burned in the dormitory arson fire Jan. 19, 2000, at this South Orange, NJ, college.
Their survival can be credited to the advances in burn treatment over the past 70 years and to the skilled care of nurses and physicians at St. Barnabas Medical Center, Livingston, NJ. Their story is chronicled in After the Fire by Robin Gaby Fisher, and it's the ADVANCE Online Book Club for Nurses featured book starting Jan. 5 (the discussion will continue until March 1 at
To Fisher, the burn nurses at St. Barnabas were like a SWAT team in the military or an elite team of medical Green Berets. This book is one you won't want to miss. Read it and then join our discussion.


One of my friend's mother was a nursing student the night of the Coconut Grove fire and talks about her memories of it as if it were yesterday.  She would be a great oral history of nursing subject.

Luann Sweeney, Ambulatory Care - RN Clinical Leader November 5, 2010 9:09 PM
Stoughton MA

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