In 1941, Pfizer's John Davenport and Gordon Cragwall attended a symposium at which researchers from Columbia University, building on the work of British scientists, presented clear data that penicillin could effectively treat infections. Inspired by the possibilities, the two men offered Pfizer's assistance. That same year, Pfizer was among the companies responding to a government appeal to join a high-stakes race to see which company would develop a way to mass-produce the world's first "wonder drug."
Beginning with fermentation experiments conducted with the team at Columbia University, Pfizer would take enormous risks over the next three years in devoting its energies to penicillin production. The substance was highly unstable, and initial yields were discouragingly low. But Pfizer was determined to succeed in the quest to mass-produce this lifesaving new drug.
In the fall of 1942, Pfizer scientist Jasper Kane suggested a radically different approach, proposing that the Company attempt to produce penicillin using the same deep-tank fermentation methods perfected with citric acid. This was tremendously risky because it would require Pfizer to curtail the production of citric acid and other well-established products while it focused on the development of penicillin. It could also place the Company's existing fermentation facilities in danger of becoming contaminated by the notoriously mobile penicillium spores.
In a small room in the Brooklyn plant, Pfizer's senior management met to weigh the options — and took the leap. They voted to invest millions of dollars, putting their own assets as Pfizer stockholders at stake, to buy the equipment and facilities needed for deep-tank fermentation. Pfizer purchased a nearby vacant ice plant, and employees worked around the clock to convert it and perfect the complex production process. The plant was up and running in just four months, and soon Pfizer was producing five times more penicillin than originally anticipated.
Recognizing the superiority of the Pfizer process and desperate for massive quantities of penicillin to aid in the war effort, the U.S. government authorized 19 companies to produce the antibiotic using the Company's deep-tank fermentation techniques, which Pfizer had agreed to share with its competitors. Despite their access to Pfizer's technology, none of these companies could come close to Pfizer's production levels and quality. Indeed, Pfizer produced 90 percent of the penicillin that went ashore with Allied forces at Normandy on D-Day in 1944 and more than half of all the penicillin used by the Allies for the rest of the war, helping to save countless lives.
The company's contribution to the war effort is heralded nationwide and earns Pfizer the coveted Army-Navy "E" Award on April 17, 1943.
The race to mass-produce penicillin was over. Pfizer had emerged victorious, but the real winners were the millions of people who were to benefit from the wonder drug. Penicillin was a turning point in human history — the first real defense against bacterial infection.