Thursday, January 14, 2010

Penicillin synthesis

A number of magazines and newspapers have now put most, if not all, of their archive material online. This means that Google searches now throw up original news reports from decades ago, way before the internet.

I was looking for some details about the development of synthetic penicillin and found this report from Time magazine in 1957 describing the discovery of the first practical method of synthesizing Penicillin. There's a nice description of why the problem was so hard:

The molecule is not unusually complicated, but extremely fragile. Any kind of rough treatment, such as heat or acids, makes it fall into fragments that cannot kill any kind of germ. To use the customary chemical methods on penicillin, says Dr. Sheehan, "would be like attempting to repair a fine watch with a blacksmith's sledge and anvil." The critical problem was to find a way to bond a carbon atom and a nitrogen atom to form a chemical ring in the heart of the molecule. Avoiding many standard reagents as too violent, and keeping his solutions at room temperature or lower, Dr. Sheehan finally found a reagent that would do the job.

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