This selection of reminiscences has been gathered from nursing staff and patients who administered and received Penicillin as a treatment in the years during and shortly after the Second World War.
As I started in Jan 1948 as a very naïve 18 year old, much of the time was spent observing or doing menial tasks…
Intramuscular [penicillin] injections were very common place and given by the senior nurses for all manner of infections and as a prevention. We young girls were told about Muriel Flack who gave the first injection of penicillin at Oxford.
By  Penicillin had become an established treatment for infection; as I remember given by 4 hourly injections. As a very junior nurse, it would be another year before I was allowed to give injections.
I don’t recall any dramatic stories with regard to Penicillin treatment. However it did have a disastrous effect viz. I developed a rash on my hands after administrating same… Despite my protestations, I was given a dose when training at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital. I had Glandular Fever (in the smog of 1952!) I developed a rash on my legs!
By , the use of penicillin was pretty wide-spread and we rather took it for granted. It was given by injection in the form of a rather sticky yellow fluid which caused the patients a fair amount of discomfort.
Procaine penicillin, as far as I remember, was given as a long lasting dose and was thick and white and difficult to draw up in the syringe. The giving of it gave even more discomfort to the patient. I remember, when drawing up procaine penicillin, the syringe broke and I cut my index finger badly.
I had a dear friend who trained as a nurse in Liverpool nearing the end of the war. Penicillin was in very short supply still. The hospital had German prisoners of war being admitted there, some with bad infections. It was a difficult situation to deal with because of the shortage but there was no question that they had to be treated the same as every other patient in need of penicillin at that time.
During the earlier days of my training at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, without realising it we were part of the ground-breaking research of various drugs, but in particular, the now much used PENICILLIN… Due to its shortage for general use, ALL urine from these patients was saved and collected in large glass bottles “Winchesters”. These bottles were collected every morning by Lady Florey, who struggled with her heavy load in the basket on her bicycle to the Path Lab where the penicillin was extracted from these special patients’ urine. Obviously strict fluid charts were also kept by the ward staff… I remember being VERY nervous when I started giving the injections. The big problem for us was that no one had much flesh on their buttocks! … The worse type of injection was the one where the Penicillin was in an oil suspension as this had a nasty habit of becoming almost congealed as one drew it up into the syringe barrel and then rushed to the bedside to inject. This was very difficult. Also a slightly large bore needle was required. It was better if the patient did not see the nurse approaching!! Generally the injections were given 3hrly 24hrs a day for 7 days.
1942 As a clerical assistant in the newly set-up ‘Intelligence Agency’ based in London, a document marker ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ was given to me for typing (no photocopiers in those days!) – this was the now widely-known account of the treatment of a patient in the Radcliffe Infirmary (? A policeman’s son) with ‘PENICILLIN’.
I started my training at the Radcliffe in March 1945. I think I was in my Second year before I could administer penicillin. It was always kept in the fridge in small containers and mixed with distilled water and shaken vigorously. It was a rather thick mixture and we used a very large needle and syringe. On night duty I remember we had to call the houseman to administer the 2am.
A friend of mine was nursing at the Robert Jones Hospital in Oswestry 1942/3 and remembers being given a phial of penicillin powder and told to take it to another ward and be very careful as it was a £1000.
My biggest personal memory was having a dental abscess and having a tooth out, which did not resolve the problem, and then having a second tooth out with the dentist saying “if only I could get my hands on some of that penicillin!”
June 1944… We had convoys of soldiers admitted, they were mostly Canadian and Scottish.…The theatres were in constant use- and one night there were 26 amputations… Penicillin was given by injection every 3 hours, day and night. The men had terrible nightmares and world ‘jump a mile’ when woken for their medications.
Olive Roworth nee Godwin, Radcliffe Guild of Nurses Special Issue: 100 years of Nurse Training, Report LXVI, April 1991. P.33
I think I thought my role in the team was just as important as Professor Florey’s. I was the nurse who was responsible for seeing that the patients urine (which was a brilliant yellow colour) was put in a special bottle and labelled ready for collection by the laboratory…by the professor’s wife who came to the side door on her bicycle and carried away the big bottle with its bright yellow contents in her bicycle basket, saying as she wobbled uncertainly off down the path “Oh nurse, I do hope I don’t have a tumble”.
A thick viscous fluid looking a bit like war-time orange juice and smelling mouldy. It had to be warmed to thin it; having warmed it and drawn it up into the syringe, it was a case of dashing to the patient as quickly as possible before it thickened again. A wide bore needle was used. The sight of a young nurse approaching at the trot with such an implement must have struck terror into many a brave patient… To enter the upper quadrant of the buttock, I always made the sign of the cross, dividing it equally before I plunged the needle in.
Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade soldier Walter Ehrlich, associated with the British Forces, later remembered his experience after he had been badly wounded in northern France and taken back to a hospital in Basingstoke, England. He described a nurse going from patient to patient with her ‘large syringe’, injecting penicillin as she went, without bothering to change needles. “I was told changing the needle was not necessary because penicillin prevents infections.”
Jessie Carter, a young civilian, was treated at the very end of the war. She describes the feeling as if “they’d injected boiling water. It was a very uncomfortable injection. Very uncomfortable”
A Child Bomb-Victim Receiving Penicillin Treatment © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5775)
This is Gillian Samuel…[she] was one of a small number of patients to be experimentally treated. She spent a year in hospital, unable to be evacuated … Alexander Fleming… would check on her progress over the weeks. She… remembers Fleming as an ‘old’ man who came to see her frequently.
IWM Web address: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/10200