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J Invest Surg. 2012 Apr;25(2):67-77. doi: 10.3109/08941939.2012.664099.

History of antibiotics. From salvarsan to cephalosporins.

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  • 1Michigan State University, Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008, USA.


Infections have represented for a long time the leading cause of death in humans. During the 19th century, pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhea and diphtheria were considered the main causes of death in children and adults. Only in the late 19th century did it become possible to correlate the existence of microscopic pathogens with the development of various diseases. Within a few years the introduction of antiseptic procedures had begun to reduce mortality due to postsurgical infections. Sanitation and hygiene played a significant role in the reduction of the mortality due to several infectious diseases. The introduction of the first compounds with antimicrobial activity succeeded in conquering many diseases. In this review we analyzed, from a historical perspective, the development of antibiotics and the circumstances that led to their discovery. The first compound with antimicrobial activity was introduced in 1911 by Erlich. He focused his research activity on the discovery of a "magic bullet" to treat syphilis. Afterwards, Foley and colleagues brought penicillin to the forefront. Streptomycin represents the first drug discovered for the treatment of tuberculosis, and its development included the first use of clinical trials. Finally, with the development of cephalosporins, the introduction of new antimicrobial compounds with broad activity against gram-positive and also some gram-negative bacteria began.

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