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Med Humanities 38:55-58 doi:10.1136/medhum-2011-010024
  • Medical student essay

The war against bacteria: how were sulphonamide drugs used by Britain during World War II?

  1. Diana Davenport
  1. Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Imperial College, South Kensington, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Diana Davenport, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Imperial College, South Kensington, London SW4 2AZ, UK; dmd06{at}ic.ac.uk
  • Accepted 2 September 2011
  • Published Online First 3 October 2011

Abstract

Penicillin is often considered one of the greatest discoveries of 20th century medicine. However, the revolution in therapeutics brought about by sulphonamides also had a profound effect on British medicine, particularly during World War II (WWII). Sulphonamides were used to successfully treat many infections which later yielded to penicillin and so their role deserves wider acknowledgement. The sulphonamides, a pre-war German discovery, were widely used clinically. However, the revolution brought about by the drugs has been either neglected or obscured by penicillin, resulting in less research on their use in Britain during WWII. By examining Medical Research Council records, particularly war memorandums, as well as medical journals, archives and newspaper reports, this paper hopes to highlight the importance of the sulphonamides and demonstrate their critical role in the medical war effort and their importance in both the public and more particularly, the medical, sectors. It will present evidence to show that sulphonamides gained importance due to the increased prevalence of infection which compromised the health of servicemen during WWII. The frequency of these infections led to an increase in demand and production. However, the sulphonamides were soon surpassed by penicillin, which had fewer side-effects and could treat syphilis and sulphonamide-resistant infections. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, the sulphonamides drugs were arguably more important in revolutionising medicine than penicillin, as they achieved the first real success in the war against bacteria.

Footnotes

  • Professor David Edgerton supervised this dissertation as part of my History of Medicine Project for my intercalated BSc.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.