Penicillin: Pharmaceutical Companies

Mobilizing Industry:

Oxford to America

Cooperation & Competion

Mass-Produced Medicine:

Technical Challenges

Penicillin Production Line

Pencillin PR:

Fortune Magazine

Life Magazine


The pharmaceutical industry entered into penicillin production in the latter half of 1941. The appeal to the major American drug companies in October 1941, such as Merck and Co., E. R. Squibb and Sons, Charles Pfizer and Co., and Lederle Laboratories, came largely from A. N. Richards, the chairman of the Committee on Medical Research (CMR) of the Office of Scientific and Research Development (OSRD).

Richards recommended the study and production of penicillin on behalf of Oxford researcher Howard Florey, who, together with Norman Heatley, had traveled to the United States in June 1941. Their purpose "…in coming to the States was not only to acquaint the medical profession with their findings [regarding the therapeutic potential of penicillin] but to interest the U.S. pharmaceutical industry in large-scale commercial production of penicillin" (Hobby, 85).

Florey and Heatley sought increased production in order to facilitate further clinical studies of penicillin's efficacy so that it might eventually be used in the treatment of war casualties. Whereas British drug companies were in no state to assist in this effort, for they lacked sufficient personnel and supplies due to wartime demands, Florey and Heatley hoped that the U.S. firms might be willing to collaborate on a large-scale penicillin manufacturing project.

This chart shows the remarkable growth in penicillion production (in billions of units) that occurred between 1943-1945. In 1943 there was essentially no synthetic penicillin being produced; by 1945 almost 400 billion units were being produced annually.


Despite the eventual success of synthetic penicillin - both medical and commercial - the decision to attempt its production was not at all obvious or uncontroversial. The mass production of penicillin posed difficult financial, scientific, and technical challenges. Companies feared not only that the Penicillium mold might contaminate their other products, but also that the ease of contamination of penicillin-producing cultures, the drug's instability, and its still low yields would result in excessive production costs. They were also concerned that should penicillin be synthesized within the next year or two, their recently installed equipment would be obsolete. The potential that foreign firms, such as synthesis-experienced firms I. G. Farbenindustrie and Farbwerke Hoechst in Germany, might gain control of the market likewise scared U.S. drug companies. Finally, pharmaceutical firms feared that penicillin might prove more toxic or less effective in the larger population, given that it had been administered only to a few patients prior to December 1941 (Hobby, 109-110).

For U.S. firms to commit to penicillin production, they needed to know if the tremendous financial investment would prove worthwhile. In other words, did penicillin's therapeutic action merit the heavy sunk costs that would be endured by pharmaceutical firms?

In this section we will look at the role of U.S. pharmaceutical companies in the production and regulation of penicillin. We will explore their motivations for involvement, the circumstances surrounding the companies' participation, and their relationship to the government and to research science.