Pfizer opened the world’s first large-scale penicillin facility in 1944, making it possible to mass produce germ-killing medicine.
Cultivating penicillin proved difficult and the small quantities that could be produced were unstable. For the next decade, penicillin remained a laboratory curiosity, until Howard Florey and a team of researchers at Oxford University demonstrated its potential life-saving properties. The researchers also discovered a method to purify penicillin and to keep it in a stable form. By 1940, clinical trials were underway and their success led to the hunt for a method to manufacture this “wonder drug.” But by then England was at war, making mass production difficult. So the question remained: how to produce penicillin on a large scale?
During World War II the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom approached the largest U.S. chemical and pharmaceutical companies to enlist them in the race to mass produce penicillin, the “wonder drug.” One of these companies, Pfizer, already had experience with fermentation techniques, first implemented twenty years earlier to manufacture citric acid. Building on that experience, Pfizer succeeded in producing large quantities of penicillin using deep-tank fermentation. Its success helped make penicillin available to Allied soldiers by the end of the war.
Visit National Historic Chemical Landmarks to learn more about deep tank fermentation.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program