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From the archives: The 1940s

C&EN describes the rise of the commercial-scale production of penicillin

by Alexander H. Tullo
May 26, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 17

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It is hard to overestimate the impact the discovery and commercial development of penicillin have had on humanity. We do not worry about dying from bacterial infection as we did before the age of antibiotics. Penicillin was discovered by bacteriologist Alexander Fleming in 1928. Working in his lab at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, Fleming observed that the fungus Penicillin notatum prevented the growth of Staphylococcus bacterial colonies. But it wouldn’t be until the 1940s that reliable methods for fermenting the drug were scaled up so it could be administered to patients. The effort was centered in the US, as the UK was too close to the war in Europe for such an endeavor, and involved the US government and drug companies such as Abbott Laboratories, Merck & Co., E.R. Squibb, and Pfizer. In fact, Pfizer’s development of deep-tank fermentation to make penicillin was named an American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmark, which was dedicated at Pfizer’s site on Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn, in 2008. A C&EN story from 1943 takes a snapshot of the penicillin effort. It describes how drug companies were installing enough capacity to manufacture 27 billion units of the antibiotic per year. The story hints at the challenges of the time, challenges still familiar today when companies attempt to make chemicals via fermentation: “Experiments are being conducted in an effort to find improved strains of the mold from which penicillin is produced by fermentation, and better culture media, which will give higher yields,” the article says.

An image of a 1940s Chemical and Engineering News article about the iscovery and commercial development of penicillin.
Credit: C&EN Archives


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