ACS Honors Pfizer for WWII Penicillin Innovation

In a special ceremony held yesterday in Brooklyn, N.Y., the American Chemical Society designated Pfizer's development of deep-tank fermentation--which enabled the mass production of penicillin for use in World War II and ushered in the era of antibiotics--as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

Thomas H. Lane, Ph.D., ACS president-elect, presented a commemorative plaque to Jeffrey B. Kindler, chairman and CEO of Pfizer Inc. "The ACS has recognized only 61 chemical landmarks since the inception of the program in 1993," Lane said. "This makes the award to Pfizer a mark of distinction for contributions that reach far beyond the boundaries of scientific practitioners, touching many lives over many decades."

"We are proud to receive this designation, which honors the company’s heritage of finding unique answers to new challenges," Kindler said. "Charles Pfizer and Company began nearly 160 years ago as a family-owned business right here in Brooklyn, and the breakthroughs recognized by this award reflect the spirit of innovation and the commitment to patients for which Pfizer is now known worldwide."

Although penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in England in 1928, he couldn't figure out a way to produce enough for medical use, and penicillin remained nothing more than a laboratory curiosity. In the late 1930s, 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 United States and British governments issued a challenge to the American pharmaceutical industry: Develop a way to mass produce penicillin to help the soldiers.

Each company chose a different method. Charles Pfizer & Co.--a relatively small chemical company based in Brooklyn--gambled on fermentation, drawing from the unique expertise it developed 20 years earlier to mass produce citric acid.

Initially, Pfizer researchers, led by Jasper Kane, used shallow flasks and pans like those that were used for citric acid, and they made gradual progress in improving penicillin's potency and purity. The breakthrough came when Kane suggested a different approach: the deep-tank method that proved successful for gluconic acid. They needed huge tanks that could hold thousands of gallons of "fermentation liquor." Pfizer purchased an old ice plant in Brooklyn that had the necessary refrigeration equipment and converted it into a penicillin factory which opened on March 1, 1944.

The plant contained fourteen 7,500-gallon tanks 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.

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