Skip to main content
ARS Home » Midwest Area » Peoria, Illinois » National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research » Docs » Penicillin: Opening the Era of Antibiotics

Penicillin: Opening the Era of Antibiotics
headline bar


Penicillin Opening of an Era

Large-scale commercial production of penicillin during the 1940s opened the era of antibiotics and is recognized as one of the great advances in civilization. The discovery of penicillin and the recognition of its therapeutic potential occurred in England, while discovering how to mass-produce the drug occurred in the US -- at the Peoria lab.

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by bacteriologist Alexander Fleming, working at St. Mary's Hospital in London.  It was not until 1939 that a group of scientists at England's Oxford University began intensive research and was able to demonstrate penicillin's ability to kill infectious bacteria.  As the war with Germany continued to drain industrial and government resources, the British scientists could not produce the quantities of penicillin needed for clinical trials on humans and turned to the United States for help.  They were quickly referred to the Peoria lab where scientists were already working on fermentation methods to increase the growth rate of fungal cultures. Arriving on July 14, 1941, work on the challenge began the very next day.

Pumping air into deep vats containing corn-steep liquor (a non-alcoholic by-product of the wet milling process) and adding other key ingredients was shown to produce faster growth and larger amounts of penicillin than the previous surface-growth method. Ironically, after a worldwide search, a strain of penicillium on a moldy cantaloupe from a Peoria market was found to produce the largest amount of penicillin when improved and grown in deep-vat, submerged conditions.

Production methods and samples of the new strain were transferred both to other research groups and private industry and clinical trials were performed in 1943.  When the trials showed that penicillin was the most-effective antibacterial agent to date, penicillin production quickly was scaled up and the antibiotic was made available in quantity to treat Allied soldiers wounded on D-Day.  As production increased, the price dropped from nearly priceless in 1940, to $20 per dose in July 1943, to $0.55 per dose three years later.

The acceleration of penicillin production was one of the most successful achievements of American chemists and chemical engineers, establishing the production of antibiotics and fostering today's pharmaceutical industry. While it was often called the "wonder drug" because of its effectiveness, one of penicillin's true wonders was the short development time from recognizing its value to mass availability. 

Three members of the British group were awarded the Nobel Prize as a result of their work.  Dr. Andrew J. Moyer of the American team was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.

In 2001, NCAUR was designated by the American Chemical Society and Royal Chemical Society as an International Historic Chemical Landmark in recognition of its significant role in the development of penicillin.