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  • Being Prometheus in 1943:Bringing Penicillin to the Working Man
  • Anthony Julius Scibilia (bio)

In 1943 the United States was engulfed in World War II, which had forced the American people to make sacrifices. The limited availability of gasoline and certain foods became commonplace nuisances, but by reserving all manufactured penicillin to care for injured soldiers the American people put their own health and safety at risk. Penicillin, which later became known as the "Wonder Drug," had the ability to cure many life-threatening infections for which there was no other therapeutic option. The ability to manufacture penicillin on a major scale was hindered by the belief that the drug could only be grown in a completely sterile environment at academic hospitals. On November 10, 1943, Julius A. Vogel, a plant physician at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Plant in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, discovered a method for creating usable penicillin in his kitchen. What became known as "kitchen" penicillin would change an entire nation's view about this medication and help to treat infection in the United States as well as across the globe.

In the fall of 1928, penicillin was accidentally discovered in London by Dr. Alexander Fleming.1 An airborne mold found [End Page 442] its way into his basement laboratory at St. Mary's Hospital and landed on one of Fleming's purest staphylococci cultures. Only when he was about to discard the culture did he realize the staphylococci had died around the invading mold.2 Fleming discovered that the fungus that killed his staphylococci was penicillium mold, thus he called the substance responsible for the effect "penicillin."3

After many tests Fleming discovered that this new mold also had the ability to prevent the growth of streptococci and pneumococci, two organisms that caused many infectious fatalities. Unfortunately after the discovery, the greatest challenge that faced researchers in penicillin was the inability to make the material in large quantities. By 1938 the threat of a second world war halted research on all antibacterial agents in England.4

Howard Florey, an Oxford University professor of pathology, contacted Fleming and had some of the original strain of penicillium transferred from St. Mary's Hospital to his pathology laboratory.5 In February 1940 Florey treated a London police officer who was dying of blood poisoning from a shaving cut. Florey injected penicillin into the man's bloodstream and by the fifth day the man, who should have died four days before, seemed on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, Florey had exhausted his penicillin supply before curing the man's progressive infection and the police officer ultimately died.6

Florey traveled to the United States in July 1941 to explore interest in meeting the needs of larger-scale production of penicillin.7 His effort resulted in the formation of the Committee on Medical Research in the summer of 1942. One of its main purposes was streamlining the production, synthesis, and clinical investigation of penicillin. Despite all this organizational progress, the production of penicillin remained minuscule. All available supplies were reserved for the war effort, creating a desperate need for the "Wonder Drug" domestically.8

The War Production Board realized the importance of penicillin and decided to focus on its large-scale production in 1943.9 On October 8, 1943, George Robinson and James Wallace, working in the Singer Laboratory at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reported a new method of growing penicillium.10 This consisted of placing gauze saturated with penicillium mold in an agar-filled petri dish and allowing it to grow for four to five days. Their method of treatment focused on caring for infections on top of the skin, such as cuts or abrasions, where a gauze pad could be directly applied. Robinson and Wallace's innovation became a turning point [End Page 443] in overcoming domestic production restrictions, but even though medical research discovered a way to produce penicillin, the amount that was being created was still very small and reserved for war casualties.11

Robinson and Wallace's method was Dr. Julius Vogel's foundation for the experiments he did to create "kitchen" penicillin in his home. Vogel located the platinum loop-holder that he obtained...


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pp. 442-450
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