We're Still Using a Medicine That Was Fished Directly Out of a Sewer

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Allergic to penicillin? Then you could be shot full of something that came out of a Sardinian sewer. Here’s the backstory of the important medicine that we found floating around in our own feces.

Typhoid fever is a life-threatening sickness. Although it’s rare in areas with good drinking water purification systems, worldwide it claims 200,000 lives every year. Even when scientists found out that the fever was the result of a bacterial infection, usually picked up through contact with sewage already containing the bacteria, direct treatments were hard to come by, and there was little they could do to purify water supplies for entire regions.

This is why Giuseppe Brotzu, an Italian professor of hygiene, was so surprised that the people in one particular area suffered a very low rate of typhoid casualties during a 1948 epidemic. These people lived in a section of Sardinia with sewage that was emptied, untreated, into the ocean. They splashed in sea water and ate shellfish from a stretch of ocean that was right next to a sewer pipe. They should have been cut down by bacterial infection, but they were mostly unaffected. Brotzu decided to look into the sewage itself.


What he found was a water-growing mold which didn’t care for the typhoid-causing bacteria any more than humans did. This mold had perfected a chemical defense mechanism which could be harnessed to kill off the bacteria around it. Brotzu sent samples around, and in 1964, cephalothin hit the market. It’s been around ever since. We’re still injecting the products of a sewage bug into ourselves and our livestock. We just don’t advertise where it came from.

[Source: The Drug Book, by Michael Gerald]

Image: Mohylek