Photo: Peter Harrison, far right, with his mother and siblings, in the mid-1940s after being treated with penicillin. (Supplied: Harrison family)
A secret mission to save a young boy's life — which has only just come to light — has re-written the history of penicillin and antibiotic use in Australia.The man behind the story is Peter Harrison, who has just celebrated his 82nd birthday.
If Mr Harrison had not received the "wonder drug" 75 years ago, it is likely he and his children would not be here today.
Photo: Peter Harrison, Australia's first penicillin recipient, is now a healthy 82-year-old. (ABC News: Alex McDonald)
"I'm overcome with joy to be part, a small part, of the beginning of the penicillin story," Mr Harrison told 7.30.
Back in 1943, Mr Harrison suddenly became ill and was admitted to Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children at Camperdown, in Sydney. He was diagnosed with Pneumococcal meningitis.
"I was terrified," he said.
"I wondered what was going to happen. I thought, maybe I will die here."
His father, Dr Leo Harrison, was a Navy surgeon. With no modern antibiotics, treatment options were limited. As his son got worse, Dr Harrison was convinced the only answer was penicillin, a drug which was, officially at least, not yet available in Australia.
What happened next was uncovered just a few months ago, when researcher Beth Robinson was sorting through old hospital documents now stored at The Children's Hospital at Westmead.
Photo: The original note and envelope recording Peter Harrison as 'The first child in Australia to have penicillin'. (Supplied: The Children's Hospital at Westmead)
"On the front of [one] envelope was a handwritten line saying, 'The first child to receive penicillin treatment in Australia,'" Ms Robinson said.
"There had been no evidence of this story anywhere, it just didn't exist. It predated anything else the records had shown so far."
'He would not be alive today'
Photo: Beth Robinson with the documents she found inside a safe at The Children's Hospital at Westmead archives. (ABC News: Alex McDonald)
A team at the hospital continued to dig and the story that emerged was remarkable.
At the time, penicillin was an experimental drug. It was being produced in the United States, with precious supplies mostly reserved for the military.
Australian doctors by-passed official channels, asking their counterparts in America to supply the drug to a small boy in Sydney — Peter Harrison.
"The request was granted and the turnaround time was extraordinarily quick," Dr Alyson Kakakios, from The Children's Hospital at Westmead, said.
"It was sent on Saturday the 10th of July, and by the following Thursday it had actually arrived in Australia.
"He would not be alive today if he had not received that penicillin."
Photo: The letter telling the doctor who administered the penicillin not to tell anyone. (Supplied: The Children's Hospital at Westmead)
At that time, the war in the Pacific was at its height. The precious cargo was sent on a Liberator bomber and the Australian doctors were urged to keep the one-off delivery secret.
"When you think of what would have been on those planes — aircraft parts, troops — they were also carrying a small box with penicillin in it on dry ice," said Dr Glen Farrow, who was also on the hospital committee investigating the case.
"Someone had to keep topping up that dry ice all the way. So there were a lot of people keeping the penicillin cold and making sure it got to Peter safely."
'Boggles my mind'
The researchers discovered the boy at the centre of the story had not only survived but was still alive and well.
Mr Harrison's daughter, Susan Field, said the story was "amazing".
"My dad's life was saved as a child. If it hadn't been, I wouldn't be here," Ms Field told 7.30.
"As children we had this in our family folklore, that Dad's life was saved by the US military bringing the penicillin out, but we didn't have a lot of facts."
His son, Peter Harrison Jr, said: "They were just experimenting, and it worked because it was the wonder drug."
Mr Harrison does not remember much about what happened, but he recalls the US pilot coming to his hospital bed to wish him well.
Tilly Boleyn, curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, said this new information changes the official records in terms of Australians being treated with penicillin.
"The first treatment I know of was an Australian soldier in New Guinea. But that would have been in December '43. And in fact, Australia only started thinking about and investigating how we would make penicillin in October, so [Mr Harrison was] well before that."
Another Australian, Sir Howard Florey, played a key role in the development of penicillin, recognising its potential to kill the bacteria that cause infection.
Mr Harrison recently met those who have been helping solve the mystery. It would not have happened without the help of Americans, and the acting US consul general based in Sydney, Linda Daetwyler, was keen to meet Mr Harrison and hear more about his story.
"It boggles my mind how that happened," Ms Daetwyler said.
"I don't think it would happen nowadays, with all the bureaucracy we have, but clearly there were a lot of people along the line that were touched by this little boy's story and pushed away protocols and regulations to make a miracle happen."
Mr Harrison and the researchers still wonder what contacts or connections his father had to make the delivery possible.
"He pulled some strings and I don't know how he did it, but he was a determined man, like I am," Mr Harrison said.