PENICILLIN – First treatment 1941

University of Oxford Radcliffe Primary Care Health Sciences Building
(formerly the Outpatients building of the Radcliffe Infirmary),
Woodstock Road, Oxford

Alexander Fleming famously identified the antibiotic properties of penicillin in 1928 when he observed that a curious fungus had destroyed bacteria on a plate left in his laboratory while he was on holiday. It is less well known that pioneering work on the isolation and purification of penicillin to make it a viable treatment of bacterial disease was performed by Howard Florey and a team of scientists at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology 1938 –1941. While there had been some treatments with antibacterial substances before, especially the sulpha drugs in the 1930s, the groundbreaking work on penicillin revolutionised modern medicine and began the golden era of antibiotics which we have long taken for granted.

Former Outpatients BuildingFormer Outpatients Building of the Radcliffe Infirmary

When the time came for clinical trials in 1941, a young doctor, Charles Fletcher, of the Radcliffe Infirmary, was deputed to liaise with the Dunn School. It was first necessary to test for possible toxicity. Mrs Elva Akers who was dying of cancer (and could not expect to receive any benefit from antibiotic treatment) nobly volunteered to receive a trial injection. The first person treated with penicillin for bacterial infection was Albert Alexander, an Abingdon police constable, on 12 February. He was on the Briscoe Ward, gravely ill from a septic wound. He began to make a rapid recovery but there was not a sufficient quantity of purified penicillin available and he relapsed. As a desperate measure Dr Fletcher would take the patient’s urine and cycle over to the Dunn School so that the penicillin could be retrieved and re-administered. Albert Alexander died on 15 March. Six patients altogether were selected for treatment and four made a complete recovery. It was clear from the trials that penicillin was indeed a miracle drug but also that the next priority was to achieve mass production and to do so urgently. By 1944 it was being mass produced with the help of laboratories in the USA, to the immediate benefit of soldiers wounded in WW2 who before the advent of penicillin would have died from septicaemia.

The Radcliffe Infirmary had opened in 1770 and pioneered developments in plastic surgery, anaesthetics, physiotherapy, neurosciences and rehabilitation. The first accident service in Britain was created there in 1941. The Infirmary closed in 2007 when all services had finally been transferred mainly to the John Radcliffe Hospital at Headington. The site was then transformed into Oxford University’s Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. In 2016 the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences reinstated medical activity at the former Outpatients building, now known as the Radcliffe Primary Care Building. This fine neo-classical building opened originally in 1913 with a bequest from the surgeon John Briscoe and has been impressively restored and modified for its new function.


  • Sir William Dunn School of Pathology: The Discovery of Penicillin
  • Eric Lax, The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat (2004)
  • Dr Eric Sidebottom, Oxford Medicine: A Walk Through Nine Centuries (2010)

The ceremony was held on 29 May 2018. The speaker was Dr Eric Sidebottom, former Lecturer in Experimental Pathology at the Dunn School. Among those attending were the Lord Mayor of Oxford (Cllr Colin Cook), descendants of Florey’s team, and many medical scientists.

Photographs taken at the event, held inside the former chapel of the Radcliffe Infirmary:

related Blue Plaque ceremony was held on the same day at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.


Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


The first antibiotic was
first used to treat infection
here at the Outpatients building
of the former
12 February 1941

Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences University of Oxford

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com