Sample of penicillin recovered from urine, Oxford, 1941 (inv. no. 14439)

Penicillin was precious in Oxford in 1941. In order to ensure that none of the drug was wasted, patient urine was collected in hospital and carried back to the laboratory by bicycle. Lady Florey was often the courier for this so-called “P patrol”. Any remaining penicillin was extracted from the urine so it could be injected into the patient again.

The much larger scale of production in America depended on innovative manufacturing methods. The concentration of penicillin in United States drug trials was nevertheless initially measured in ‘Florey Units’, and equivalent ‘Oxford Units’ were later adopted. Amongst mass-produced vials from the largest American penicillin plant one still has its prescription label showing it was used to treat a solider, Private Blanchard.

If the problem of production could be solved by industry, attempts were also made to improve drug administration through technology. This is an apparatus for the continuous infusion of penicillin designed by Dr C E Last, who worked at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Surrey. The patient would be given penicillin at a constant rate by a needle inserted in their muscle. Last claimed his invention was pain-free and a useful timesaving tool for nursing staff.



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