The first sulfa drug to be discovered. Largely of historic interest today.

The discovery was made by the great German physician and chemist Gerhard Domagk (1895-1964). In 1925 Domagk was named Lecturer in Pathologic Anatomy (pathology) in the University of Munster (where he spend most of his long career). However, from 1927 to 1929 he was given leave of absence from the University to do research in the laboratories of the I.G. Farbenindustrie (Bayer) at Wuppertal. There, in 1932, Domagk found that a red dye-stuff, to which the name “prontosil rubrum” was given, protected mice and rabbits against lethal doses of staphylococci (staph) and streptococci (strep). Prontosil was a derivative of sulphanilamide.

Domagk was not satisfied that prontosil, so effective in mice, would be equally effective in humans, but it so happened that his own daughter Hildegarde contracted a deadly streptococcal infection from a needle prick and Domagk, in desperation, gave her a dose of prontosil. She made a complete recovery.

Domagk waited to publish his discovery of the antibacterial nature of prontosil until 1935 when data were available from clinicians who had tested the new drug on patients. During the years that followed, much work was done on this class of antibacterial compounds and some thousands of derivatives of sulphanilamide were produced and tested for their antibacterial properties.

Domagk’s work earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1939 “for the discovery of the antibacterial effects of prontosil.” However, the Nazis forced him to decline the honor. The Nobel rules require that the money be returned to the Nobel Foundation if the prize is not accepted after a year. After the war, in 1947 Domagk was given the Nobel gold medal but not the money.

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