Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Rewriting Life

Medicine's Manhattan Project

Wartime mass production made penicillin a panacea.

Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin is one of medical history’s most famous moments. But the original wonder drug languished in laboratories until a World War II research program that rivaled the Manhattan Project-at times literally-brought it to hospitals and battlefields.

By the summer of 1941, Oxford University researchers led by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain had shown that penicillin could cure people of deadly bacterial infections. But making the drug was difficult: The Oxford group started out growing the antibiotic-producing Penicillium mold in bedpans, and even resorted to collecting penicillin from treated patients’ urine. Still, they amassed enough of the drug to treat only six patients. With bombs falling on Britain, Florey and a collaborator went to the United States for help.

A critical stop on their tour was the Department of Agriculture’s Northern Regional Research Laboratory (NRRL) in Peoria, Ill. Quickly convinced of penicillin’s importance, the NRRL researchers went to work. One of their key developments was submerged or “deep” fermentation, a way of culturing the mold within a liquid medium, rather than floating on top. Within a few years, penicillin producers abandoned the thousands of glass flasks or milk bottles needed each day for surface culture in favor of tank fermenters that held thousands of liters like those at Merck and Co.’s Rahway, N.J., plant shown above.

This story is part of our July/August 1999 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

The NRRL also led the search for better-producing variants of Penicillium. They analyzed molds from cheese factories, kitchens and soil samples collected by Army pilots around the world. The best mold came from a cantaloupe found in a Peoria market. To this day, penicillin manufacturers use descendants of that strain.

The NRRL’s early successes and the federal government’s urging helped convince drug companies that large-scale production of penicillin was possible. Ten days after the Pearl Harbor bombing, several industry heads agreed to combine efforts with the government, the military, academia-and each other. Together, the hundreds of researchers at these organizations overcame numerous technical challenges under conditions of wartime scarcity, at times competing with Manhattan Project labs for equipment.

In 1944 the penicillin program paid off: The manufacturers had made enough of the drug to treat all the Allied wounded in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The next year, penicillin production exceeded 6.8 trillion units-enough for everybody.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.