Field of Science

"The partisans have ampicillin". Really?

The Russian covert antibiotic program must have been hugely successful

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In an effort to stave off the boredom that inevitably accompanies adjustment to a new environment, I was watching the WW2-era movie "Defiance" yesterday. The movie is based on an astounding true story about two Jewish brothers (played by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) who hide and lead a band of Jewish refugees through the forests of Belorussia for two years and thwart the Nazis' plans for their extermination. Surviving on food killed and obtained in the jungle, defending themselves with stolen small firearms and occasionally seeking the help of partisans from the Red Army, the Bielski brothers and their group provide one of the most exemplary stories of resistance against the Nazis during the war.

So far so good, and the movie is not bad at all. But during one scene my ears suddenly perked up. There is a winter epidemic of typhus threatening to wipe out the population. A nurse tells Craig that the disease is spread by lice and without medical attention the patients will certainly die. To prevent this, she says, Craig and his group must borrow ampicillin from the Red Army. "The partisans have ampicillin", she says with hope and concern.

Which is all fine, except that ampicillin was not even known in 1942. It was introduced only in 1961. Even penicillin was a closely guarded secret in 1942. Plus I am not even sure if typhus is properly treated with beta-lactam antibiotics.

I was further chagrined when in order to confirm this I visited the Wikipedia page on penicillin. While it otherwise looked ok, it also said that the first total synthesis of penicillin was achieved by Woodward. Again, not true. Woodward synthesized cephalosporin. It was John Sheehan from MIT, a mentor of E J Corey, who synthesized penicillin after a mammoth effort of 15 years. The error is now rectified.

Seems the directors of Defiance and the editors of the Wikipedia penicillin page have the same problem of fact-checking.


  1. Russians could have had sulfonamides supplied to them from the Western allies. Its a howler - I wonder what else they got wrong.

    BTW, the Bielski brothers were rather ruthless and feared for their retribution: the story was not popularized until now precisely because of the ambiguities.

  2. Sulfonamide would have made more sense...

    Interesting factoid about the Bielski brothers. There are a couple of scenes where their ruthlessness does seem to surface, but for the most part the story is rather sanitized.

  3. Wow, I just rented that movie a day or two ago and seeing your title pop up in my feed reader seemed strangely ominous. But yes, I also noticed the irregularity. One or two of the Russian subtitles seemed a little off, but then I can never tell when someone is speaking Ukrainian or something just similar enough to trip me up.

  4. People got so accustomed to antibiotics they cannot imagine a misery of life without them.

    I wounder if the same is true for immunizations...

  5. I noticed this too when I watched this movie last night. Ampicillin would not be the best choice to treat typhus even if the drug had been around as it's mode of action is not very effective against the bacteria that causes this disease. Sulfonamides, which were around at the time, would have been a big mistake since they actually make the course of the disease worse, so at least the movie makers didn't make that mistake.


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