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Penicillin: The Miracle Drug

Samit Bhandari
Washington Middle School, Peoria

Penicillin was first discovered by the British doctor Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928. Many years later he visited Peoria, Illinois, because of the research and experiments being done there by many of Peoria's scientists at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory (NRRL). It was in Peoria, at the NRRL, that the mass production of penicillin took place. This major development was not given much publicity in Peoria's history, although the city played a major role in the production of penicillin. In the early 1940s, many great scientists worked on a way to mass produce penicillin.

Doctors Howard Florey and Normon Heatley, who also were scientists researching penicillin in England, brought their penicillin production problem to the NRRL because of the staff in Peoria. The NRRL had opened in the 1940s, just in time to undertake the work of Florey and Heatley when they arrived in the summer of 1941. They selected Peoria because the staff there had extensive experience in handling molds and bacteria. The actual research and production started July 15, 1941. A great part of the experimenting and research was done in the fermentation division of the NRRL under Dr. Robert Coghill. Dr. Charles Thom, a very knowledgeable scientist specializing in molds, who was already quite familiar with penicillin, came to the NRRL. Dr. Thorn also had taken Florey and Heatly to visit Dr. P. A. Wells, who later telegraphed Dr. O. E. May of the NRRL, asking if the fermentor device was available since it would help in the production of penicillin. May sent a telegram back inviting Florey and Heatley to visit the NRRL. When they arrived, Florey and the NRRL agreed that they would try to produce large amounts of penicillin.

In Peoria, there were many scientists who worked to increase the production of penicillin, but five of the scientists at the NRRL were especially responsible: doctors Robert Coghill, O. E. May, George Ward, Kenneth Raper, and Andrew Moyer. Although they had not produced penicillin before, they believed they could make more of it faster. Dr. Coghill, the chief of the fermentation division, was very important. May, who also worked on the research, was director of the NRRL at the time. Dr. Moyer, another scientist, came up with ideas that were very helpful in the production of penicillin. Dr. Ward often assisted Coghill in his experiments, and they both developed new ways to produce the drug.

There were many different substances that the scientists used to boost the production of penicillin. For example, in Oxford, England, scientists used yeast, but at the NRRL, they did not have any of the yeast; hence, Dr. Moyer came up with the brilliant solution of using corn steep liquor, which was readily available in Peoria. They already had experience working with it, and it was cheap. The scientists quickly found out that the corn steep liquor increased the production and that it also accelerated the growth of the drug. Dr. Coghill's idea of producing more penicillin was to use phenylacetic acid. Corn steep liquor and phenylacetic acid were used together because it was known that corn contained phenylacetic acid, so Moyer and Coghill did research and found that the liquor contained it as well. Together, both men also increased the rate of production. Dr. Raper, who was working with Dr. Coghill, attempted to isolate organisms from soils that would produce large amounts of penicillin. They received soil from all around the world, but ironically, the best strain was found in moldy cantaloupe from a market in Peoria. From that, they found a superior mold that also yielded large amounts of penicillin.

The development of corn steep liquor took place in four different steps. The first step was to collect the molds and have them analyzed. Secondly, Dr. Moyer fed his molds with corn steep liquor. In the third step, the fermentation of the mold took place. This step increased the growth and production of the mold and was handled by doctors Ward and Coghill. The last step was to recover the penicillin from the molds from which it was taken. They did this by screening and pressing the molds, the extract was then bottled and shipped by the National Research Council to doctors and hospitals worldwide; it was especially helpful for treating servicemen during World War II.

All these procedures and events led up to the mass production of penicillin at the NRRL. The work in Peoria was very important to the production of penicillin. Although this was not given great publicity at the time in Peoria, or recognition in Peoria's history, one should recall the great work that has led to great uses of this "miracle drug" throughout the world.[From: G. L. Hobby, Penicillin: Meeting the Challenge; Peoria Transcript, June 1943, June 1944, July 1945; B. Sokoloft, The Story of Penicillin.]

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ILLINOIS HISTORY / APRIL 1996


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