In 1951, a patent for improved sulfonamide drugs was issued to James W. Clapp and Richard O. Roblin. Sulfonamides — discovered in 1932 by Gerhard Domagk — were the first chemical substances systematically used to cure bacterial infections in humans.
After serving in the Sanitary Service during the war, Gerhard Domagk returned to medical school and later became the director of the Institute of Experimental Pathology at I.G. Farbenindustrie. Here Domagk led the research to develop treatments for common bacterial infections. After a number of unsuccessful attempts I.G. Farbenindustrie chemists repeated an old trick used to make dyes bind better to wool. They introduced sulfonamide function into azo dyes and found a promising chemical combination. The new sulfonamide successfully cured mice infected with an extremely virulent form of Streptococcus pyogenes. On Christmas Day, 1932, I.G. Farben submitted a patent application for sulfonamide dyes, one of which would be named Prontosil Rubrum.
In 1935 Domagk published a paper detailing the clinical results of treatments with Prontosil. At first, the medical community was skeptical that a drug could be effective against generalized bacterial infections. Later that year, Domagk’s daughter Hildegarde developed severe blood poisoning after falling down stairs and jabbing a sewing needle through her hand. Domagk treated her with the new drug and within a week the fever subsided. In the United States, Prontosil remained an almost unknown drug until it cured Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., son of the 32nd president, of a life threatening strep infection in late 1936.
In 1939 Domagk won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation