Ernest Duchesne (May 30, 1874 – April 12, 1912) was a French physician who noted that certain moulds kill bacteria. He made this discovery thirty-two years before Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin, a substance derived from those moulds, but his research went unnoticed.
He entered l'Ecole du Service de Santé Militaire de Lyon (the Military Health Service School of Lyon) 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 moulds and microbes), that he submitted in 1897 to get his doctorate degree, was the first study to consider the therapeutic capabilities of moulds resulting from their anti-microbial activity.
Duchesne had made his breakthrough by observing how the Arab stable boys at the army hospital kept their saddles in a dark and damp room to encourage mold to grow on them. When he asked why, they told him that the mold helped to heal the saddle sores on the horses. Intrigued, Duchesne prepared a solution of the mold and injected it into a series of diseased guinea pigs. All recovered.
In a series of meticulous experiments, Duchesne studied the interaction between Escherichia coli and Penicillium glaucum, showing that the latter was able to completely eliminate the former in a culture containing only these two organisms. He also showed that an animal inoculated with a normally lethal dose of typhoid bacilli would be free of the disease if the animal was also inoculated with Penicillium glaucum. This contrasts with the strain discovered by Fleming, Penicillium notatum, which did not affect the typhoid bacilli.
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.
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 TB. Three years later, he was discharged from the army and sent to a sanatorium in Amelie les Bains. He died at the age of 37 on April 12, 1912. He is buried next to his wife in the Cimetière du Grand Jas in Cannes. He 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."
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