I am sure most of you will have heard of Alexander Fleming, the man credited with the discovery of penicillin, but only a few will have heard of Gerhard Domagk. He has an interesting story to tell…
Gerhard Domagk was born in Germany in 1895. He was a medical student in Kiel, his studies being interrupted to serve in the First World War, where he was wounded. After the war, he completed his studies and went on to become professor of pathology at the University of Munster. He also became involved with the Bayer Research Laboratories in Wuppertal.
His research involved studying potential anti-bacterial properties of azo-dyes. Around 1932, he discovered that one of these, a red dye called Prontosil Rubrum was able to cure streptococcal infections in mice models. He also used the compound, with reported success, on his own daughter.
Prontosil is actually a pro-drug and it was discovered to be metabolised to the active form, sulfanilamide. Prontosil was the first of many in the sulphonamide family of antibiotics.
Although penicillin was discovered before the sulphonamides, Prontosil was actually the first antibiotic to be produced commercially, from 1935.
For the discovery of Prontosil, Gerhard Domagk was awarded the Nobel prize in 1939. However, due to the Nazi policy of not recognising the Nobel awards, he was forced to turn it down. (He later received the award in 1947.)
He died in 1964. For a more complete biography of Gerhard Domagk click here.