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Joe Everybody, a modern day man with average knowledge (high school and Wikipedia) in biology, medicine and chemistry, wakes up in an medieval city. He sees a lot of sick people and remembers about antibiotics and how penicillin was discovered.

Is it possible for him to rediscover and produce any antibiotics with the common technology in these times?

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  • $\begingroup$ I've actually thought of this question a few times, I'm surprised I never asked it here. However, having seen your question, I suddenly realized a major complication with all time travel stories. Your the inspiration for my question: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/13430/… $\endgroup$ – dsollen Mar 31 '15 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ No, because you have vastly overestimated the knowledge of the average person in present-day society, even limiting the selection to the first world. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 31 '15 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ They did it in quantum leap if I recall... $\endgroup$ – James Mar 31 '15 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf that's why I've got a rotating set of the best shirt ever - just in case I get sent back in time. Of course, an engraved credit card form factor with magnifier would work better... but, hey t-shirts are fun. $\endgroup$ – user487 Mar 31 '15 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ Are you saying he still has access to Wikipedia in this scenario? Or that he had merely looked at it once? $\endgroup$ – Fhnuzoag Apr 1 '15 at 12:46
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Checking Wikipedia, it seems that creating penicillin from the right kind of fungus/mold should be possible for your joe everybody, provided he had slightly above average knowledge about the mechanism, and was willing to first convince a few alchemists, and second spend a lot of time doing the research which fungus, where to get and how to grow it, and finally how to produce it in sufficient quantities.

Of course, before that, he would need to make sure he lives long enough in an environment that is not naturally friendly towards strangers, let alone strangers that come up with very strange ideas strongly resembling witchcraft.

One more hint: It would definitely have to be a Joe Everybody. A Jane Everybody would most likely be burned at the stake for only speaking about the idea.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe he can gain credibility and avoid witchcraft accusations by first establishing himself/practicing as a 'doctor' (whatever the name was for someone treating/curing in those days). $\endgroup$ – user3106 Mar 31 '15 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen possible, yes. Still he would need to hide his Penicillin experiments from the general public, and also hide the fact that he is hiding them. It must have been very easy to create suspicion those days as a stranger. $\endgroup$ – Burki Mar 31 '15 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ Sources please. While indeed it can happen that it was "very easy to create suspicion those days as a stranger", I've read a lot of stories from those times when a stranger claiming to be an alchemist or a miracle worker came to town and managed to convince a lot of people to believe in his quackery. Just as in the Wild West here wasn't a pistol duel every noon at every street corner, so there weren't witches burned at the slightest mood swing in the Middle Ages. If you build a world resembling the Middle Ages, take care to not make it look like a strawman. $\endgroup$ – vsz Mar 31 '15 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ Did anyone look at Baen's Bar and the forums for Flint's "Ring of Fire"? I'm pretty sure there's already an expert answer there. And IIRC, part of the issue is materials engineering for any scale of production. $\endgroup$ – user4239 Mar 31 '15 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ I would not say the idea is strange, in medieval times making various medicines from grasses, herbs, roots and fungi was very widespread and common, people did it by generations. If somebody appears who claims he knows a good traditional recipe, he would be just respected for the knowledge and willingness to share it. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Apr 1 '15 at 8:54
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Looking at the history of penicillin, the time traveller in question would need to be familiar with identifying their bacterial cultures. A lot of those bacteria are hard to identify, especially because optics and lens production in Europe did not take off for a while, with the first microscope appearing in 1595.

Unless this person is really interested in molds in the modern world, he wouldn't know:

  1. Penicillin mold is actually a very common food contaminant. Its blue-green tint helps identify it. It should also be noted that fungi play a very large role in Europe, helping preserve foods such as various cheeses and some sausages.
  2. Agar, a growing medium for molds and bacteria, is obtained from things like seaweed or even horse blood. Sounds like a good basis for witchcraft to me!

That aside, if the time traveller remembers how penicillin was discovered, and remembers the two points above, the time traveller (with some experimentation) could make a miracle drug called "penicillin." The next thing to remember is cowpox, a very survivable disease, immunizes people to smallpox, a very deadly disease.

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  • $\begingroup$ Additionally, while a time traveler -might-, with a lot of luck, be able to rediscover penicillin, scaling up production to the extent where you can treat diseases with it is a big challenge in itself. And not one that has a simple answer you can memorize. $\endgroup$ – Atsby Mar 31 '15 at 8:37
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    $\begingroup$ He would probably know that the first mold was found on food from the story of pencilian. What if he simply let a bunch of bread become moldy, and then took the mold from each bread type and placed it near other molds to see if it was able to destroy them? $\endgroup$ – dsollen Mar 31 '15 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen It should be noted that penicillin is an antibiotic which targets bacteria, not other fungi. There is also another issue that humanity may be dealing with penicillin-resistant diseases more quickly because we're likely to misuse such a miracle drug at the time. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Apr 1 '15 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ @PipperChip yes I misspoke saying fungus, though I was thinking of a petrri dish of bacteria even as I typed fungus lol. I agree that we may run into penicillin resistent diseases sooner, but that doesn't seem like too large a risk. If the traveler knew the risk he could caution others to avoid it. If he didn't, well I still think more lives will be saved then lost, once the power of penicillin is discovered effort to find other antibiotics will begin. It will take longer to find them, starting with less biological knowledge, but still they will be found by the time their most needed. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Apr 1 '15 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ The use of moldy bread as a poultice was an established practice in pre-roman times (amrls.cvm.msu.edu/pharmacology/historical-perspectives) around much of the world. Likewise, distallation was known in pre-roman times. The ability to distill moldy bread into a more powerful and generally useful form is something that would have been grasped by the medeval mindset, and the foundations of the technology were not only present but ancient. The technical difficulty lies in distilling the exact agent from the mold. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Jul 16 '17 at 2:54
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no.. not really.

it's incredibly hard to make useful quantities. In 1941 it took months for a team to create enough to treat a half dozen people.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Alexander

Purifying large quantities and avoiding contamination is also a nightmare.

vaccines, or at least one particular vaccine is another matter: our Joe Everyman with only basic knowledge of the history of vaccines could fashion a usable smallpox vaccine from cowpox. All he'd need would be the puss from cowpox sores.

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    $\begingroup$ Penicillin was so hard to refine that they used to collect the urine of the treated patients, reclaim the penicillin from it, and use it again. $\endgroup$ – Willk Feb 16 '17 at 23:45
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Judging by some recent reports Medieval medicine was not necessarily as ineffectual as we often assume - a modern time traveller would probably be more medically influential through basic general knowledge about the existence of germs, basic hygiene, circulation and so on. Just ensuring people have clean water and wash their hands and surgical tools would save a vast number of lives. Indeed, one of the biggest low-hanging fruit of modern medicine is simply ensuring doctors wash their hands between patients. The ability to make a specific antibiotic would probably be beyond a layman but the knowledge that antibiotics can exist and that one could be derived from blue bread-mould would give future natural philosophers a great advantage in their development.

Edited to add that a highly accessible and world-changing technology would be vaccination - Jenner's approach for Smallpox was fairly simple and for people who live in the modern era it is hard to imagine what a devastating disease that was for most of history.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to say, having a recipe for easily-crafted antiseptic soap and hygiene training would benefit general health much more than penicillin. $\endgroup$ – Drunken Code Monkey Oct 3 '16 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ Hygiene For the Win!I love how Terry Pratchett had his witches address possible infections by explaining that hygiene kept away "invisible biting demons". A theory that would fit well in the time period. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Jan 11 '17 at 14:37
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It depends on how much your man knows. Penicillium (the mold from which penicillin is created) is common, but it would very hard for a typical person to identify. It would also be very difficult to test without modern cell cultures. Just slapping random mold on injuries would be more likely to cause infection than to cure it. Unless your man knows one important fact -- that Penicillium is used for creating blue cheese. If he knew that, he would likely be able to get some from cheese manufacturers. Creating oral or injectable penecilin requires advanced chemistry, but using it to create a poultice would be easily done by medieval healers.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great point about uses in a poultice rather than as an orally administered drug. +1 $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Jan 11 '17 at 14:35
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Yes, easily ... And even a lot more. Have a look here. There are some recipes and remedies on the internet.

Also I remember someone saying you can get penicillin from some bread molds.

He/she could also distill alcohol and use it as a disinfectant. 60% alcohol is very easy to distill and it will give you hospital grade disinfectant.

Maybe you can get your character to see a documentary on penicillin or something randomly before being teleported in time. Or maybe he watched a zombie apocalypse movie last night and people were baking penicillin in the movie.

Ah, and something awesome. Maybe your character accidentally kills a nobleman who is allergic to penicillin. Just to give a bit of twists to the story.

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    $\begingroup$ If I woke to find myself in the Dark Ages, it would certainly occur to me to make penicillin, but alas, if the locals decided to force me to try it first, I would die from anaphylaxis and no one would ever try it again. Very short story. $\endgroup$ – IchabodE Apr 1 '15 at 22:43
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They probably already knew

It's highly likely that medieval people already knew how to make antibiotics. They didn't necessarily know it was penicillin they were making, but the history of treating wounds and infections with molds containing antibiotic substances stretches back to civilisations as old as ancient Egypt.

It's a similar case with aspirin. Although it was 'discovered' in 1899 when acetylsalicylic acid was first synthesised, people have been treating fevers with willow-bark tea containing salicylic acid since antiquity.

Considering present-day hunter-gatherer's intimate knowledge of the medicinal plants in their environment I'd guess you'd have to go back a very long way before treatments are actually a new idea.

So what can we do?

That being said, local knowledge levels will vary. What you can do is spread knowledge of these existing treatments to people who don't have it.

The other thing you can help with is refinement. One of the issues with these existing treatments is that their methods of application are limited. As previous answers have mentioned, it shouldn't be that hard to produce more concentrated penicillin and you can use that to treat non-topical infections.

Of course, the inability to adequately enforce proper courses of treatment will probably mean the advent of antibiotic-resistant diseases a hell of a lot earlier. Not certain it's such a wise long-term decision...

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