Medication superstar made its U.S. debut right here


In 1942, at New Haven Hospital, Anne Miller became the first U.S. patient to receive penicillin. The drug saved the life of the then 33-year-old mother and ushered in a new era of medicine. Pictured here at age 75, Miller eventually lived to 90. Photo courtesy of the Yale New Haven Hospital Archives.

It has been a staple of medicine for 75 years, a go-to antibiotic that can cure abscessed teeth, cellulitis of the feet and a range of other infections in between. While penicillin was discovered in England, it was used for the first time in a U.S. clinical setting at Yale New Haven Hospital, by doctors who were out of options but hadn’t given up.

In March 1942, 33-year-old Anne Miller was dying, losing the fight against a streptococcal infection that had invaded her bloodstream after a miscarriage. Physicians at YNHH (then called New Haven Hospital) had tried everything to cure her, including other types of antibiotics, a blood transfusion, a hysterectomy – even rattlesnake serum.

One day, after visiting Miller in the hospital’s isolation unit, Orvan Hess, MD, her obstetrician, was so concerned he went to the Graduate Club in New Haven to see her internist, John Bumstead, MD. That visit set off a chain of events that involved nearly as much luck and coincidence as determination.

While waiting for Dr. Bumstead, Dr. Hess happened to read a Reader’s Digest article about the use of bacteria to kill streptococcal infection in animals. He asked Dr. Bumstead about obtaining a similar bacterial agent. Dr. Bumstead turned to Dr. John Fulton, neurophysiologist at Yale School of Medicine, who just happened to be a patient at New Haven Hospital.

Fulton had attended England’s Oxford University with Howard Florey, a researcher studying penicillin. The drug had not been approved for human use in the U.S., but Fulton was able to get that approval, along with a 5.5-gram dose from Merck Laboratories.

On March 14, Anne Miller received her first dose. By the next day, her fever had broken. After completing treatment, contrary to everyone’s expectations, she lived – to age 90, in fact.

The rest, as they say, is history.

To learn more, visit the YNHH archives display: “Penicillin: The Miracle Drug,” near the York Street Campus Atrium Lobby, between now and Oct. 4.