Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 is considered one of the greatest milestones in the history of modern medicine. It was first widely used to treat infection in 1941.(1) By the year 1947, the rise of penicillin-resistant infections was considered alarming in the medical world. Eli Lilly launched an antibiotic discovery program, and a key component of it was soil screening.(2)
E.C. Kornfield, an organic chemist at Lilly, wrote an acquaintance of his, a missionary working in Borneo, and sent him sterile vials, requesting soil from the jungle. He asked for soil samples “off the beaten path… away from towns and villages.” “Certainly hope there is something promising in our dirt out here,” the missionary wrote back. “From our past attempts at gardens, I cannot say it has been promising to us.”(2)
But the soil sample did prove promising. It yielded an organism that led to the development of the antibiotic Vancomycin. The organism (later named streptomyces orientalis) demonstrated activity against staphylococci.(3) While introduced in the 1950s, Vancomycin was “eclipsed by antibiotics that were considered to be less toxic and equally or more efficacious,” according to an article on the drug’s history in Clinical Infectious Diseases.(4) Beginning in the 1980s, use of Vancomycin increased sharply, because of its predictable activity against clostridium difficile (CDI), staphylococcus aureus, and methicillin-resistant s. aureus (MRSA).(3) “Optimal use of Vancomycin is of great importance due to the high morbidity and mortality associated with infections caused by these organisms.”(5)
(1) Lobanovska, M., Pilla, G., Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, Penicillin’s Discovery and Antibiotic Resistance, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/.
(2) McGraw, D., Phd Thesis, The Antibiotic Discovery Era (1940-1960) Oregon State University.
(3) Moellering, R.M.D., Clinical Infectious Diseases, Vancomycin A 50-Year Reassessment, https://academic.oup.com/
(4) Levine, D. M.D., Clinical Infectious Diseases, Vancomycin: A History, https://academic.oup.com/
(5) University of Wisconsin Health, Intravenous Vancomycin Clinical Practice, https://www.uwhealth.org/