When penicillin could only be “caught” in contraband in the bars of Madrid’s Gran Vía

In August 1944, the famous professor and physician Carlos Jimenez Diaz decided to go on vacation to Santander. The city, although still recovering from tragic fire of 41 which had destroyed almost the entire old town, still retaining much of that picturesque charm that had made it one of the country’s tourist epicenters during the first decades of the 20th century. However, Jiménez Díaz did not feel good about the trip..

It is not very clear how, but back to Madrid pneumococcal pneumonia was already showing obvious symptoms of worsening. And, great as the efforts of his disciples and companions were, he did not improve in the following days. So much so that, once it was shown that sulfa drugs were not having an effect either, to the doctors who treated him They only had one option: go to Bar Chicote, on 12 Gran Vía in Madrid, the Sancta Sanctorum of the Spanish cocktail bar.

The secret weapon of the allied army

Canadian Forces Land In Normandy Day D

Although the key moment of the arrival of penicillin in Spain is a little earlier, of course. Though Fleming he made the key discoveries that led to the Nobel in 1928 and published them a year later. It took almost 10 years for a couple of researchers from the University of Oxford (H. Florey y E.Chain) decided to systematically study what uses this fungus could have at the clinical level. You don’t have to be well versed in contemporary history to realize that World War II was swiftly upon them.

At first, no one paid much attention to them. In fact, in 1940, they published their results in animals in The Lancet without anyone noticing that penicillin could become one of the strategic assets of the War that began to devour the world. However, when a year later they began to treat several patients, it turned the tables.

Nevertheless, drug production was very complex. The strains they worked with were so slow that part of the treatments had to be carried out by recovering penicillin from the patients’ urine. So with Nazi Germany bombing the country, the investigators turned to the US for help. In Peoria, in the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, began to examine strains that had been worked with in the UK.

With little success, really. For weeks, American researchers examined hundreds of different molds from dozens of decaying products to see if any were capable of producing similar effects. Just then, was when Mary Hunt, one of the laboratory workers, arrived at the Center with a yellow cantaloupe melon that she had found at the local market. There they found the Penicilinum chrysogenum a strain that produced two hundred times more antibiotic than the Penicilina marked English. After subjecting it to ultraviolet radiation, that figure multiplied by five and was one of the key aids in the Battle of Europe.

Penicillin arrives in Spain!


By 1944, the technical means had evolved considerably. Y there was enough penicillin to supply the allied army. Nevertheless, for civilians it was more complicated. In Spain, for example, it seems that the well-known ophthalmologist Jose Ignacio Barraquer had used small amounts, but it wasn’t until March 10, 1944 when it is traditionally considered that penicillin reached Spain.

That day, a mining engineer with bacterial endocarditis admitted to the San Nicolás clinic in A Coruña, expected to receive 400,000 units of penicillin from the US troops occupying North Africa. On the other hand, “in Madrid, a nine-year-old girl, suffering from streptococcal septicemia, awaited, clinging to the impatience of the illusion for a speedy recovery, the arrival at the family home in the Argüelles neighborhood of the twelve penicillin vials that the Brazilian ambassador he had given up his father. “

The medicine arrived in both cases, but in the first it was scarce and in the second late. The great weapon against bacterial diseases came to the country, yes; but could not do justice to its reputation as a “miracle drug”. Something that did not prevent a huge black market from emerging.

The black market for penicillin

Because, indeed, throughout 1944 and until, with the end of the war, the distribution of penicillin began to normalize, what existed in the country was a huge black market that made it easier to get the antibiotic from black market in bars like Chicote than in a pharmacy or hospital. Even after 1945, when the National Pharmacy Directorate tried to control the supply and prevent smuggling, it was common to see shipments of it entering from Tangier or Gibraltar.

Finally, Jiménez Díaz was saved and lived many more years. Enough to create the Foundation that bears his name and see how penicillin left the underworld and into clinical practice. In fact, it was his case, perhaps the most celebrated by the press of the moment, that was instrumental in helping the drug’s popularity. A drug that changed the world and we are letting lose.

Image | Jhosef anderson

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