Today we take antibiotics very much for granted and face a very serious problem with the emergence of widespread bacterial antibiotic resistance. In the years before 1935, bacterial infections were a deadly and an ever-present risk, with people routinely dying after very minor scratches or cuts once they had become infected. This all changed following Gerhard Domagk’s research on Prontosil, which became the first commercially available antibiotic. In its time, Prontosil was seen very much as a miracle drug since after taking it patients who were near-death were revived and became healthy again within hours. However, Sulphanilamide, a derivative of Prontosil was cheaper to produce, and was also easier to link into other molecules, and this soon gave rise to hundreds of second-generation sulphonamide drugs, and as a result, Prontosil failed to make any profits in the marketplace and was quickly eclipsed by the newer “sulpha drugs”.
For this work I have prepared two separate and colourless precursors that when mixed together form the bright orange coloured antibiotic Prontosil. As a child I was fascinated by invisible inks, which are invisible on application, but which can be made visible by some means or other later, and this formed the basis of this work. I loaded one of the precursors into a fountain pen to make an invisible ink, wrote with it, and then exposed the invisible text to the second precursor in order to develop the message. The red letters are made from Prontosil, as the two precursors combine, and would have once saved lives. It’s odd to think that I’ve always hated fountain pens because I’m left handed and find it difficult not to smudge the ink.