Share the article

Understand  –  Antibiotics

History of antibiotic development

Brief history of antibiotic development as medicines

1928: Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin. However, it took over a decade before penicillin was introduced as a treatment for bacterial infections

1930s: The first commercially available antibacterial was Prontosil, a sulfonamide developed by the German biochemist Gerhard Domagk.

1945: Penicillin was introduced on a large scale as a treatment for bacterial infections. This was possible through the work of Florey and Chain who managed to efficiently purify the antibiotic and scale-up production. The introduction of penicillin marked the beginning of the so-called “golden era” of antibiotics

1940 – 1962: The golden era of antibiotics. Most of the antibiotic classes we use as medicines today were discovered and introduced to the market. Each class typically contains several antibiotics that have been discovered over time or are modified versions of previous types. There are for example numerous β-lactams (pronounced beta-lactams) such as different penicillins and cephalosporins.

Figure 1. History of antibiotic development. The name of the different classes of antibiotics and the year they were discovered are shown on the timeline.

Lack of new antibiotics

Today, there are very few novel antibiotics under development. At the same time antibiotic resistant bacteria that survives antibiotic treatment are becoming more and more common, making available antibiotics ineffective. Thus, we are inevitably facing a major health problem. Read more about the problems with antibiotic discovery and development under How did we end up here? – Few antibiotics under development.

Selected Resources

Resource Description
Antimicrobial resistance learning site – Historical perspectives Course website. An historical overview of the treatment of bacterial diseases, from ancient times to the pre-antibiotic era, onwards to the discovery and development of antibiotics. Includes videos/documentaries. Scroll down to access the teaching modules on “The Pre-antibiotic Era” and “The Golden Age of Antibiotics and Synthetic Antibacterial Drugs”.
Antibiotics and Bacterial Resistance in the 21st Century Journal article that describes approaches to developing antibacterial agents and the history of established antibiotic classes.

More from "Antibiotics"

University of Minnesota, Michigan State University. Antimicrobial resistance learning site [Internet]. Antimicrobial Resistance Learning Site. Available from:
Fair RJ, Tor Y. Antibiotics and bacterial resistance in the 21st century. Perspect Medicin Chem [Internet]. 2014;6:25–64. Available from:
Sneader W. History of Sulfonamides. In: eLS [Internet]. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2001 [cited 2014 Nov 28]. Available from: