Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming and used to treat the first patient in 1942, for streptococcal septicemia. Half of the total world supply at that time was used on that one patient.
In 1943, a worldwide search for the best strain of penicillin mold selected one found growing in a moldy cantaloupe in a grocery store in Peoria, IL. By the spring of 1944, the United States had produced 2.3 million doses, using mold sourced from that melon, in time for the invasion of Normandy.
During World War II, chemists cultured molds in pans and stacked them floor to ceiling in many labs to produce tiny amounts of penicillin, the only known antibiotic at that time. In spite of all they could do, it remained in such short supply that unmetabolized remnants of it were recycled from soldiers’ urine.
This 3D model of a penicillin molecule was made by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, in England, in 1945, by interpreting patterns refracted by x-rays, known as x-ray crystallography. Having this model made it possible for John Sheehan at MIT to devise a method for synthesizing the antibiotic in 1957.
Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”.