Skip to main content
ARS Home » Office of Communications » Timeline » penicillin

The Rescue of Penicillin

Agriculture's great gift to modern medicine...

Back to Features

Watch a video to learn about this and other discoveries that improve our daily lives.

photo of Andrew Moyer
USDA chemist Andrew J. Moyer developed an industrial process for making penicillin and other antibiotics, vitamins, drugs, and chemicals.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, discovered a mold with bacteria-killing powers so incredible it was effective even when diluted 800 times. The mold, which appeared to be relatively nontoxic, promised to have therapeutic value. If only it could be produced in quantity!

Efforts to produce large amounts of the elusive mold failed and failed again, and a worldwide disappointment set in. For the next 10 years, people continued to suffer and die from common infections while the promise of penicillin languished.

Then, in July of 1941, two British scientists, Howard Florey and Norman Heatley, visited the United States from war-beleaguered England. With them, they brought the mold, which had been converted into a stable brown powder.

Arriving in the United States, they were directed to USDA's Northern Laboratory, now a component of today's Agricultural Research Service, in Peoria, Illinois. The scientists in Peoria immediately rolled up their sleeves and started their cultures of penicillium. By November 26, 1941 (just days before Pearl Harbor), Andrew J. Moyer, the lab's expert on the nutrition of molds, had succeeded, with the assistance of Dr. Heatley, in increasing the previous yields of penicillin 10 times.

The secret was corn steep liquor, familiar to agricultural researchers as a byproduct of the wet corn-milling process but obscure to medical researchers of the day. By including this nutrient-rich liquor in the culture medium, Dr. Moyer found a better growth medium than anything tried in England.

Dissatisfied still, he added milk sugar to the medium, and again the Penicillium mold doubled. Moyer also figured out how to use deep vats to grow the cultures. So encouraging were the results that four U.S. drug companies agreed to attempt large-scale production of penicillin. Nevertheless, by March 1942, they'd only produced enough of the drug to treat a single case.

Then the Peoria researchers made yet another breakthrough. Searching for a superior strain of Penicillium, they found it on a moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria garbage can. When the new strain was made available to drug companies, production skyrocketed.

Thanks to the combined efforts of many people, penicillin was available in quantity to treat Allied soldiers wounded on D-Day. And ever after.

In 1987, Moyer was posthumously named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Arlington, Virginia. There he joined such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, and the Wright brothers. Dr. Andrew Jackson Moyer was the first Government researcher ever to be inducted.