Antibiotics and tuberculosis in the 1940s

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in the 1920s but it wasn't until 1941 that Australian scientist Howard Florey developed penicillin as an anti-biotic. Antibiotic penicillin was the ideal treatment for blood poisoning (septicaemia), whooping cough, trachoma (a type of eye infection), kidney infections and rheumatic fever. Professor Florey helped set up a medical research institute at Canberra which became known as the John Curtin School of Medical Research. In 1943, Australia was the first country in the world to make penicillin available to the general public.

Learn more about Howard Florey on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's website at and

One of the big health problems that the federal government encountered in the immediate post war period was tuberculosis (TB). Symptoms of this highly contagious disease include violent coughing, deep pain and gasping for breath. Considerable social stigma was attached to contracting this disease in the days before its transmission was understood. Unpasteurized milk was one way the disease was transmitted. In the post war years state governments gradually introduced legislation to make pasteurization obligatory. Proper refrigeration of milk also helped reduce the contamination of milk.

The federal government's intervention was significant in bringing the disease under control. X-rays were made compulsory for all people over fourteen. TB became a notifiable disease, isolation was made compulsory and pensions were granted to assist families who had a member diagnosed with TB. The use of new antibiotic drugs in 1948 greatly assisted in the treatment of the disease and the use of sanitoriums prevented the spread of the disease from infected individuals. Public health measures like a reduction in over crowding in houses and sanitation also helped to bring it under control. It would be many years, however, before an immunisation program was developed to eradicate the disease in Australia.