Monday, June 04, 2007

Dr Kirby and Friends Discover Penicillin

This is Dr Lelias Kirby's story of how he discovered penicillin and is copied from an article which appeared in the Birmingham News (AL)on (enter date). The information is significant to me because my paternal grandfather (J S Jordan) is mentioned. I'm guessing this story took place in the late 1920's as my grandfather finished medical school in 1925.

At long last, I feel free to reveal my secret about the wonder drug, penicillin.

During the depression years, the people poured into the Woodlawn Hospital by the wagon and truckloads, mostly miners and farmers. One day, a family from a mining community came with several children sick with diarrhea.

The father's doctor in Walker county had given him a quart jar filled with some yellow liquid that smelt to the high heavens but didn’t taste too bad. The father said his doctor told him to give each of the children a tablespoonful every three hours. I told him I could not do it, because I didn't know what was in it.

The father said, "I have used it many times before, and it worked." I asked him why he didn’t give it to his children this time. "Because I have hospital insurance," he replied.

I told them I would try a little of it if he and his wife would sign the chart. They each made a cross mark for their signatures. I told the nurse to keep the bottle hid from the other doctors and we would call it S17 on the chart.

The following day the three children which had been give the S17 were crying for something to eat; they had no diarrhea - no fever.

Dr J.S. Jordan noticed that the sick children he was treating were no better. He looked at my chart and asked me what S17 was. I told him I didn't know, but showed him my jar of it. He secretly used some, and his children perked up. We tried in on pneumonia and a ruptured appendix - it was a miracle.

We contacted the doctor who sent the medicine, and he told us a black woman had made it for him and he would here make us some more. He said he didn't know everything she put into it, but he did know she soaked bread in water, then put it in a dark room and let it mold. Then she ground it through her coffee grinder, added a little paregoric, some assifidity, some sorghum syrup, and buttermilk. Sometimes she adds some other things - I don't know what all - but those were the principal ingredients.

Well, Dr Monroe Somerset, Dr Jordan and I figured that molded bread was the principal ingredient. We wet some slices of bread, placed them in the dark basement of the Woodlawn Hospital, and when it got a good mold, ground it up in a sausage grinder. We added a few other things to give it a better look and taste.

We kept our S17 a secret. We were afraid the medical society might throw us out.

One day, the courts of Alabama declared the Woodlawn Hospital Insurance illegal. Dr Jordan, Dr T. L. Smith, Dr Somerset and I began using the South Highland and West End Baptist Hospitals, but we continued to make S17 in the x-ray dark room.

About six years later, the miracle drug, penicillin, was discovered.

Leave me a comment if you have a story about how a major discovery impacted the lives of one of your ancestors.


  1. Hi Dana! Son E. was reading about penicillin today, and I remembered this post, so I just sent it to his Kindle to read later on at his leisure. We wanted to know the relationship between this story and the "official" Fleming story regarding mold in a petri dish? Just curious. :)

  2. Hi Brandy! There is no official (or unofficial) relationship between my grandfather (USA) and Fleming (UK). The story is indicative of how people were treating themselves with home-made remedies, not even realizing that they were using *penicillin*. Fleming was the one fortunate to document his discovery.

    Furthermore, it is of infinite interest to me that the father took his children to the hospital ONLY because he had insurance, when he really was already treating them successfully at home.

  3. This is all so fascinating! I was wondering if your grandfather *knew* Fleming, but it seems like we see this a lot in scientific history--the same discovery arising at similar times in different places. Fascinating.

    And the insurance aspect is interesting also. I remember I used to work part time at a place with great insurance. I think the co-pays were $5. A woman there would take her children in constantly "just in case," even though she was taking care of them fine at home with things like Benadryl or Tylenol. If the co-pay had been higher, her home-care would have suddenly been good enough!