Issue Date: July 14, 2008
Pfizer’s Penicillin Landmark
THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY designated Pfizer’s development of deep-tank fermentation an ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark in a June 12 ceremony at the original Pfizer manufacturing site in Brooklyn, N.Y. The technology was a breakthrough that enabled the mass production of penicillin for use in World War II.
Current employees at the Brooklyn plant, retirees, and company brass attended the ceremony and were proud of the company’s accomplishments but reticent with reporters. A business decision made in January 2007 to close the historic plant means that these workers will be among the last to be let go when the plant officially closes at the end of this year. Given the circumstances, applause was restrained and smiles were few during the low-key festivities.
ACS President-Elect Thomas H. Lane presented a commemorative plaque to Jeffrey B. Kindler, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer. The plaque, along with a traveling Pfizer exhibit commemorating the accomplishments of the Brooklyn plant, will circulate among Pfizer facilities worldwide.
“The ACS has recognized 61 chemical landmarks since the inception of the program in 1993,” said Lane, who is director of global science and technology outreach at Dow Corning. The program “helps recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of chemists and engineers who improve people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry,” Lane said. All landmarks must satisfy certain criteria: They must be seminal achievements in science realized at least 25 years ago and must be supported by irrefutable evidence of their impact on society.
Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in England in 1928. But he couldn’t figure out a way to produce enough for medical use, and penicillin lingered as nothing more than a laboratory curiosity. In the late 1930s, however, with the onset of World War II, scientists saw potential to resurrect Fleming’s work to make a germ-killing medicine to save the lives of Allied soldiers. In 1941, the U.S. and British governments issued a challenge to the American pharmaceutical industry: develop a way to mass produce penicillin for soldiers.
Charles Pfizer & Co., a relatively small chemical company at the time, gambled on fermentation for mass production, drawing on the fermentation expertise it developed 20 years earlier to mass produce citric acid.
In the search for a manufacturing method for penicillin, Pfizer researchers, led by Jasper H. Kane, initially used shallow flasks and pans like those used for citric acid, and they made only gradual progress in improving penicillin’s potency and purity. A breakthrough came when Kane suggested a different approach: the deep-tank method that had proven successful for making gluconic acid.
Pfizer needed huge tanks that could hold thousands of gallons of “fermentation liquor,” so the company purchased an old ice plant in Brooklyn that had the necessary refrigeration equipment and converted it into a penicillin factory. It opened on March 1, 1944.
The plant contained 14 tanks that could hold 7,500 gal, and soon the company was producing more penicillin in one month than it had in all of 1943. Most of the penicillin that went ashore with Allied forces on D-Day came from Pfizer’s Brooklyn facility. The wonder drug has saved millions of lives.
Speaking at the landmark ceremony, President of Pfizer Global Manufacturing Natale Ricciardi told attendees, “We have always had a very noble mission.” Ricciardi, who began his professional career as a chemical engineer at the Brooklyn plant more than 40 years ago, continued: “A lot of things have changed in our industry. A lot of things have changed at Pfizer, and unfortunately, we had to make certain decisions. But the nobility of what we do, the nobility of what has been done and continues to be done has never changed and will never change.”
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