Meningitis and the military: the remarkable story of the first use of penicillin in Australia (1943)

Ameneh Khatami, Philip N Britton, Glendon Farrow, Megan Phelps and Alyson Kakakios
Med J Aust 2020; 213 (11): . || doi: 10.5694/mja2.50846
Published online: 23 November 2020

Medicine in the pre‐antibiotic era offers lessons still relevant today, particularly regarding the prudent use of valuable medications

The handwritten line on an archived envelope stored in a safe in The Children's Hospital at Westmead undercroft — “The first child in Australia to have ‘Penicillin’ therapy” (Box 1) — understates the remarkable story of how an experimental drug was requested, approved and delivered in secrecy during the Second World War for one child. The “Penicillin Papers”, rediscovered in 2018 by the Heritage Committee of The Children's Hospital at Westmead, highlight important questions of ongoing relevance. The story of the fortuitous discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 has entered popular consciousness. What is less well known is how penicillin, which dramatically changed the course of medicine, came to be given to patients.

  • 1 The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW
  • 2 Sydney Children's Hospital Network, Sydney, NSW


Philip Britton is supported by a National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Fellowship (GNT1145817). We thank Bethany Robinson, University of Sydney graduate, for her contributions, and members of The Children's Hospital at Westmead Heritage Committee for providing historical information used in the preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.

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