Antibiotics at War: G. A. G. Mitchell

James Peters writes:

We have recently catalogued the papers of G. A. G. Mitchell (1906-1993), professor of anatomy at the University of Manchester between 1946 and 1974. This small collection includes some fascinating information about the use of antibiotics during the Second World War.

During the War, Mitchell played a leading role in using antibiotics to treat war wounds. He developed antibiotic treatment regimes during the North African, Italian and Western European campaigns, and ended the War as adviser in penicillin to the 21 Army Group. Mitchell was awarded an O.B.E. for these vital contributions to military medicine.

G. A. G. Mitchell (right) at his desk in Cairo, 1942 (Mitchell Papers, GGM/3/1).
G. A. G. Mitchell (right) at his desk in Cairo, 1942 (Mitchell Papers, GGM/3/1).

Penicillin, the antibiotic released by the Penicillium mould, had been discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Fleming, although aware of penicillin’s bacteria-destroying properties, had not pursued research of its practical uses. Instead a research team at Oxford University led by Howard Florey, and including Ernest Chain and Norman Heatley, produced purified penicillin, and successfully used it to treat serious cases of infection. Its importance in dealing with war-related infected wounds was immediately realised, and Florey’s team worked with US pharmaceutical companies to produce penicillin in mass quantities. In 1945, Florey and Chain (along with Fleming) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.”

Penicillin and other antibiotics played a critical role in treating infections during the War, which in the past had been the cause of almost as many deaths as battlefield wounds. Mitchell and others devised procedures for mass treatments using these drugs through continuous observation and testing. Mitchell believed antibiotics could be used not only to treat existing infections, but as prophylactics to prevent infections developing within wounds.

Mitchell’s papers document his trials of various antibiotic agents, and include clinical data about the varying success of different treatments. There are interesting letters from both Fleming and Florey about the practicalities of using antibiotics in the field. Also of interest are the letters of thanks which Mitchell received from soldiers he had successfully treated.

Letter from Fleming, 27 December 1944, sending a culture of streptococcus for estimating penicillin in serum (GGM/2/3).
Letter from Alexander Fleming, 27 December 1944, sending a culture of streptococcus for estimating penicillin in serum (GGM/2/3).

Although Florey is now widely regarded as the great evangelist for penicillin, Mitchell had disagreed with him about its practical applications; he later expressed the view that Florey was “a man who had the good fortune to reap more rewards from penicillin than he deserved” [Copy letter to Sir John Boyd, 1 April 1967 (GGM/2/6)].

After the War, Mitchell came to Manchester and enjoyed a very successful career as teacher in the Medical School. His later research focussed on neuroanatomy and the renal nerves, but it was probably for his war work that he will be best remembered.

A catalogue for the Mitchell papers is now available on ELGAR:

1 comment on “Antibiotics at War: G. A. G. Mitchell

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