In 1939, a thirteen year old boy called Roger Kingsford was admitted to Nelson Hospital with osteomyelitis, a septic infection of the bone in his right leg. The infection was non-responsive to sulphonamides, the only antibiotic treatment available at the time. Despite a preventative amputation, the infection spread and Roger developed osteomyelitis in his right arm and left leg. During the next few years he became chronically and seriously ill. In the early 1940s, after hearing reports about a new drug which was being successfully used to treat bacterial infections in soldiers, Roger’s parents appealed to the New Zealand government for access to penicillin.
Roger Kingsford’s family would not be unique in making this plea; many civilians sought penicillin in the hope of a miracle cure for their loved ones. Roger’s case, however, captured the attention of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health. The family had a long and impressive history of military service and sacrifice for the country. Roger’s parents had both been actively involved in World War One, his father rising to the rank of Major. Roger’s two older brothers had volunteered for military service in the early stages of the Second World War. One had died in Egypt and the other faced an uncertain future in Italy. The Kingsfords were confronted with the possibility of losing all three sons. To important members of the government, who knew the family, this appeared a very high price.
Penicillin’s therapeutic potential was initially discovered by an Australian, Dr Howard Florey, in early 1940. His results excited the medical community, and by July 1942 sufficient penicillin had been cultured and tested for the first field trials. They were a remarkable success, showing that very little of the drug was needed to treat common wound infections. This success generated global attention and the drug was quickly brought into service to treat wounded soldiers. Supplies, however, were very limited and none could be spared for civilian use.
With the support of the New Zealand government, Major Kingsford appealed to America and the United Kingdom. His requests were refused many times before a small quantity of penicillin was finally made available for Roger. Thus he became the first New Zealand civilian to be treated with penicillin, receiving the ‘miracle drug’ months before it was available for general administration through the public hospital system. On 22 February 1944 Roger received 1,500,000 Oxford Units of penicillin from the Australian government, to be administered over ten days. (This equates to about half of one standard dose by today’s standards.) Roger was discharged after this course of treatment. Unfortunately for poor Roger, he would need to be readmitted and treated with penicillin seven more times over the next 3 years. Despite this, he eventually died on 17 January 1947.
Roger’s case is one of suffering, but his father’s unwillingness to give up on his fight for the importation and administration of penicillin led to the ‘miracle drug’ becoming more and more accessible for the common person. By late 1944 penicillin was readily available, although in limited supply, in public hospitals and through District Health Boards. Australia agreed to provide weekly penicillin shipments which began in June 1944. This agreement affected the lives of many New Zealand citizens, and changed the way that we approach treatment of disease, leading to less fatalism in the face of infection.
Claire Macindoe: Claire Macindoe wrote her 490 History dissertation on the introduction of penicillin to New Zealand’s population. She is currently tutoring for the History Department at the University of Otago. Growing up in a family of doctors, she was exposed to medical topics of conversation from a young age, creating an interest in medical history which she is pursuing into her PhD.