When the first antibiotic, penicillin, was new, it was a very precious commodity. Pharmacologists had to grow an enormous amount of mold to produce even one dose. And considering World War II was raging, the need was enormous, too. But scientists had an ace up their sleeves: they knew that penicillin could be recycled, by collecting a patient’s urine!
After one administration of injected penicillin, anywhere from 40 to 99 percent of the antibiotic is excreted in urine in its fully functional form about 4 hours after administration thanks to our efficient and hardworking kidneys (2). Due to this distinct feature of its pharmacokinetics, penicillin could be extracted from the crystalized urine of a treated patient and then used to treat another patient in the throes of serious bacterial infection just next door. In 1943, just shy of one year after its successful usage in saving the aforementioned woman’s life, the total amount of penicillin that had been produced was enough to treat only a hundred people, and this only if it was judiciously reclaimed and reused (3). Recycling penicillin wasn’t just smart; it was a necessity for such limited quantities of this wonder drug.