Re-Inventing Infectious Disease: Antibiotic Resistance and Drug Development at the Bayer Company 1945-80

Med Hist. 2016 Apr;60(2):155-80. doi: 10.1017/mdh.2016.2.


This paper analyses how research on antibiotic resistance has been a driving force in the development of new antibiotics. Drug resistance, while being a problem for physicians and patients, offers attractive perspectives for those who research and develop new medicines. It imposes limits on the usability of older medicines and simultaneously modifies pathologies in a way that opens markets for new treatments. Studying resistance can thus be an important part of developing and marketing antibiotics. The chosen example is that of the German pharmaceutical company Bayer. Before World War Two, Bayer had pioneered the development of anti-infective chemotherapy, sulpha drugs in particular, but had missed the boat when it came to fungal antibiotics. Exacerbated by the effects of war, Bayer's world market presence, which had been considerable prior to the war, had plummeted. In this critical situation, the company opted for a development strategy that tried to capitalise on the problems created by the use of first-generation antibiotics. Part and parcel of this strategy was monitoring what can be called the structural change of infectious disease. In practice, this meant to focus on pathologies resulting from resistance and hospital infections. In addition, Bayer also focused on lifestyle pathologies such as athlete's foot. This paper will follow drug development and marketing at Bayer from 1945 to about 1980. In this period, Bayer managed to regain some of its previous standing in markets but could not escape from the overall crisis of anti-infective drug development from the 1970s on.

Keywords: Antibiotic resistance; Bayer company; Drug development; Infectious disease; Staphylococcal infections; Tuberculosis.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / history
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Anti-Infective Agents / history*
  • Anti-Infective Agents / therapeutic use
  • Bacterial Infections / drug therapy
  • Bacterial Infections / history
  • Biomedical Research / history
  • Clotrimazole / history
  • Drug Discovery / history*
  • Drug Industry / history*
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial*
  • Germany
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Marketing / history
  • Mycoses / drug therapy
  • Mycoses / history
  • Streptomycin / history


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Clotrimazole
  • Streptomycin