Science Diction: The Origin Of 'Antibiotic'

Selman Waksman, the microbiologist who discovered streptomycin, first used the word "antibiotic" in the medical sense in 1943. Science historian Howard Markel talks about how it was actually a naval officer who first coined "antibiotic" in 1860, to describe an opposition to the belief in life beyond Earth.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

(Soundbite of music)

Ah, yes. That music means it's time for our month's episode of Science Diction, where we look at the origin of science words with my guest, Howard Markel. He's professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, co-director of the Center for History of Medicine there. Welcome back.

Dr. HOWARD MARKEL (Center for the History of Medicine, University of Michigan): Hi, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Good to have you back. What's our word for today? It's an interesting one.

Dr. MARKEL: Well, it's - represents one of the great miracles of modern medicine: antibiotics.

FLATOW: Antibiotics. It's a compound word it sounds like.

Dr. MARKEL: It is. It's two words. And it really comes from the Greek and Latin roots for against life. Ironically, it wasn't used in the way that we know it, as a drug that you take for an infection, until 1943 when Selman Waksman, who is a very famous microbiologist and himself invented or discovered 20 antibiotics, used that word in that fashion.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And we normally think of the first antibiotic being from penicillin.

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. But before we get to penicillin, I want to take you back about 120 years before 1943 because antibiotics' original meaning -it comes, as I said, from the root for against life - described in opposition to believing in the presence or the possibility of life outside the planet Earth.

FLATOW: Oh...

Dr. MARKEL: A very famous naval commander, Matthew Maury, he was a founder of the U.S. Naval Observatory. And he actually coined the word antibiotic in his 1860 textbook "Physical Geography of the Sea and Its Meteorology." And, you know, you could imagine Maury look at the stars quite a bit through a telescope and a sextant as he attempted to chart the seas and winds and currents. And he argued in his book against extra terrestrial life forms. He said, I incline to the antibiotic hypothesis, so very different meaning.

FLATOW: Oh, that's cute.

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. MARKEL: Now it (unintelligible) a lot of favor in the 1870s and '80s to mean aliens from outer space. But by 1890, it was revised by a French microbiologist named Pierre Vuillemin. And he used it to describe any compound or chemical that was injurious or destructive to living matter, especially microorganisms. But he was really riffing on a much different anti-life concept called antibiosis.

And that was the term that both Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch used in 1877, when they were describing how there were certain airborne bacteria that were floating around their labs and it inhibited the growth of their anthrax cultures. They were studying anthrax individually in order to establish the germ theory. Well, the key, of course, was finding out exactly what was causing that inhibition.

And in the decades that followed, many, many scientists search for such agents, but the catch was many times, most times the substances they use were so toxic that they not only kill the infecting microbes, they also seriously harm the people who are taking the medication. And the great example of that was Dr. Paul Ehrlich's famous magic bullet for syphilis, which was called Salvarsan 606. And professionally, that was just a variant of arsenic, something most of us would not elect to take.

FLATOW: No, I hate it when that happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So we go fast forward to Fleming and the Penicillium mold and that's where the first...

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. That's where the birth really begins. It's 1928 and Alexander Fleming was a bacteriologist at London's St. Mary's Hospital. And he discovered a Penicillium mold of fungus had contaminated his laboratory. But he had this eureka-like moment when he noticed how well that fungus inhibited the growth of specific types of bacteria he was (unintelligible) to culture. And we now know that, you're right, as penicillin...

FLATOW: Dr. Markel, we've run out of time.

Dr. MARKEL: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

FLATOW: No, that's - you're a great storyteller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And I love long stories. Well, we'll have to pick up next time, next month, okay?

Dr. MARKEL: Okay. Good to be here.

FLATOW: Have a great weekend.

Dr. MARKEL: Okay, thanks. Bye.

FLATOW: Howard Markel is professor of the history of medicine at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and director of the Center for the History of Medicine there.

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