Ernest Duchesne (30 May 1874 – 12 April 1912) was a French physician who noted that certain molds kill bacteria. He made this discovery 32 years before Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin, a substance derived from those molds, but his research went unnoticed.
Life and work
Duchesne entered l'Ecole du Service de Santé Militaire de Lyon (the Military Health Service School of Lyons) in 1894. Duchesne's thesis, "Contribution à l’étude de la concurrence vitale chez les micro-organismes: antagonisme entre les moisissures et les microbes" (Contribution to the study of vital competition in micro-organisms: antagonism between molds and microbes), that he submitted in 1897 to get his doctorate degree, was the first study to consider the therapeutic capabilities of molds resulting from their anti-microbial activity.
In Duchesne's landmark thesis, Duchesne begins testing the effect of tap water on mold finding mold is significantly diminished when exposed to French tap water. After detailing 19 different experiments, Duchesne concludes the presence of Penicillium glaucum inhibits bacterial growth:
Toutes ces expériences aboutissent aux mêmes résultats: la présence de bactéries dans un milieu où l'on cultive des moisissures est pour ces dernières une cause de destruction rapide, quand bien même ces moisissures auraient eu le temps de s'accoutumer au milieu nutritif avant l'apport de microbes.— Ernest Duchesne, Contribution à l’étude de la concurrence vitale chez les micro-organismes: antagonisme entre les moisissures et les microbes
Immediately thereafter, Duchesne makes a tremendous leap and begins testing the response of guinea pigs, Cavia porcellus, to highly virulent bacteria. In four experiments, Duchesne shows that administering Penicillium glaucum prevents the guinea pigs from dying. It is in Duchesne's fifth major conclusion, where he calls out this tremendous success using mold to combat bacteria and suggests additional study:
V. Il semble, d'autre part, résulter de quelques-unes de nos expériences, malheureusement trop peu nombreuses et qu'il importera de répéter à nouveau et de contrôler, que certaines moisissures (Penicillumglaucum), inoculées à un animal en même temps que des cultures très virulentes de quelques microbes pathogènes (B. coli et B. typhosus d'Eberth), sont capables d'atténuer dans de très notables proportions la virulence de ces cultures bactériennes.— Ernest Duchesne, Contribution à l’étude de la concurrence vitale chez les micro-organismes: antagonisme entre les moisissures et les microbes
This, while only weakly conclusive given the size of the experiments, proves Duchesne understood, concluded, and published information about the effect of the Penicillium glaucum mold as a therapeutic agent in animals. Because he was 23 and unknown, the Institut Pasteur did not even acknowledge receipt of his dissertation. He urged more research but unfortunately his army service after getting his degree prevented him from doing any further work. Therefore, neither Duchesne nor the Institut Pasteur capitalized on Duchesne's tremendous discovery and years later, Fleming received credit for his work with, Penicillium notatum and his isolation of Penicillin.
Duchesne served a one-year internship at Val-de-Grâce before he was appointed a 2nd class Major of Medicine in the 2nd Regiment de Hussards de Senlis. In 1901, he married Rosa Lassalas from Cannes. She died 2 years later of tuberculosis. In 1904, Duchesne also contracted a serious chest disease, probably tuberculosis. Three years later, he was discharged from the army and sent to a sanatorium in Amélie-les-Bains. He died 12 April 1912, at age 37. Duchesne is buried next to his wife in the Cimetière du Grand Jas in Cannes.
Duchesne was posthumously honoured in 1949, 5 years after Alexander Fleming had received the Nobel Prize.
A history of antibiotics contains a suggestion on why it was forgotten:
- While Fleming generally receives credit for discovering penicillin, in fact technically Fleming rediscovered the substance. In 1896, the French medical student Ernest Duchesne originally discovered the antibiotic properties of Penicillium, but failed to report a connection between the fungus and a substance that had antibacterial properties, and Penicillium was forgotten in the scientific community until Fleming's rediscovery.
- Duchesne 1897, Antagonism between molds and bacteria. An English translation by Michael Witty. Fort Myers, 2013. ASIN B00E0KRZ0E and B00DZVXPIK.
- O'Connor, Pat (27 November 2005). "History of Antibiotics". Retrieved 6 June 2013.