Ernest Duchesne, the Father of Antibiotics

Getting credit for a great scientific discovery is sometimes just a matter of luck. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. He placed a bacterial culture in his incubator and came back the next morning to see circular dots of fungi invading the culture plate that he had laid out the night before. He noticed that everywhere the fungus grew, the bacteria did not. He felt that something in the fungus must be keeping bacteria from growing. Fleming was not smart enough to extract the chemical in the fungus that kept bacteria from growing, and he did not show that it could be used to save people’s lives by curing bacterial infections, so his discovery of antibiotics was largely ignored.

Chain and Florey Made Fleming Famous The only reason that Fleming is famous today is that 14 years later, in 1942, two brilliant researchers named Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Walter Florey isolated and purified penicillin and used it to cure infections in humans. In 1945, Fleming, Chain and Florey were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine and Fleming became Sir Alexander Fleming.

Credit Really Should Have Gone to Ernest Duchesne Thirty years before Fleming’s discovery, Ernest Duchesne had extracted a chemical from mold that he used to cure bacterial infections. His work with mold was so revolutionary that his contemporaries in Paris found it difficult to believe that infections such as anthrax and typhoid fever could by cured by injecting mold extracts into an infected person.

A Clue from Saddle Sores Ernest Duchesne was born in Paris in 1874. He began medical school in 1894 and graduated in 1897 from l’Ecole du Service de Santé Militaire in Lyon. While he was still a student, he saw that the Arab stable boys at the army hospital stored their saddles in a dark and damp room to encourage mold to grow on them. They told him that mold helps to heal saddle sores on horses. Duchesne made a solution of the mold that grew on the saddles and injected it into a pig at the same time he injected enough typhoid fever bacilli to kill the pig. The pig did not die (Hist Sci Med, 2002 Jan-Mar;36(1):11-20).

In 1897, Duchesne submitted his research as his doctoral thesis, “Contribution to the study of vital competition in micro-organisms: antagonism between molds and microbes”. This was the first medical report of curing bacterial infections with mold. However, doctors at the Pasteur Institute ignored his thesis, probably because he was an unknown 23-year-old who did not even have his medical degree.

Soon after he received his degree, Duchesne was drafted into the French army and was appointed a 2nd class Major of Medicine in the 2nd Regiment de Hussards de Senlis. This prevented him from doing further research that could have made him one of the most famous doctors of all time.

In 1901, he married Rosa Lassalas from Cannes. She died two years later of tuberculosis. This left him heartbroken and also with tuberculosis. He was sent to a sanatorium and wandered from one health center to another until he died of tuberculosis in 1912, at age 37. He is buried next to his wife in Cannes. The world did not know that personal tragedies prevented him from following up research that could have introduced antibiotics to cure infections 40 years earlier than Fleming, Chain and Florey.

Credit After Death The world forgot Duchesne until 34 years after his death when Ramon and Richou published a summary of his medical school thesis (le Progrés Médical”, 1946). In 1999, the British medical journal Lancet published a tribute to Ernest Duchesne and called him “The father of antibiotic therapy”. He died unknown, but is remembered now when he is not around to hear the applause (The Lancet, December 11, 1999;354(9195):2068 – 2071).

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