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Tube of Prontosil tablets, Germany, 1935-1950

Prontosil was the first commercial sulphonamide antibacterial drug, available from 1935 onwards. For the first time some of the serious problems caused by bacteria, such as blood infections, tonsillitis and puerperal fever, could be cured. At first, there was scepticism surrounding the drug but it was embraced whole heartedly after some famous success stories. Prontosil started the race to find further similar compounds to tackle other infections. Sulphonamides were discovered by Gerhard Domagk (1895-1964), a German biochemist who spotted their ability to kill bacteria in 1932 while studying dyes. Domagk won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1939.

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    Glossary: sulphonamides

    Antibacterial drugs used to treat diseases like bronchitis and pneumonia, derived from sulphanilamide

    Glossary: bacteria

    Micro-organisms which can cause disease but have an important role in global ecology.

    Glossary: antibiotic

    A substance that is used to treat infections.

    Glossary: tablet

    Also known as a pill, it is made by compressing a powdered form of one or more drugs. It is usually taken by mouth, but may be inserted into a different body cavity.

    Glossary: tonsillitis

    Inflammation of the tonsils due to bacterial or viral infection. Tonsillitis causes a sore throat, fever and difficulty in swallowing.

    Glossary: puerperal fever

    A blood infection suffered by some mothers soon after birth. The main symptom is a fever in the first 24 hours following delivery.

    Glossary: Nobel Prize

    Awarded annually for outstanding work in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics, and the promotion of peace.