Profile: McKeen and Kane - Penicillin Production

This post is part of the 12 Chemical Engineers who Changed the World series.

Penicillin is one of the single greatest advancements in the whole history of medicine. And this is for good reason: penicillin is one of the most widely used drugs today.

It is a known cure for a wide range of critical illnesses, such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and staphylococcus and streptococcus infections, among others.

Prior to penicillin, many of the diseases it can cure now where then believed to be untreatable. It was, thus, one of the closest moments that humanity got close to an antibacterial panacea.

The discovery of penicillin—this story is quite popular and you might already know this—is actually a complete accident.

Its discover, Alexander Flemming, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in left petri dishes of staphylococcus on his laboratory bench as he left for a holiday outing.

Upon his return on September 3, he found that one of the cultures had been contaminated by a fungus.

He noticed that it destroyed the colonies of staphylococcus that were in the periphery of the fungus mold. He later discovered that the fungus was Penicillium and that it released a substance that can kill different types of disease-causing bacteria.

And this was how penicillin was born.

There was much fanfare upon Flemming’s discovery, considering that penicillin showed much promise with its ability to cure then-untreatable diseases.

However, a much harder question came: how can penicillin be mass produced? After all, mass producing and distributing penicillin among disease-afflicted areas is the only way it can make true impact.

This is where McKeen and Kane came in.

Jasper Herbert Kane was born in in Brooklyn, New York, United States. After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in he first worked during his teenage years at Pfizer’s Brooklyn plant, where he served as James Curie’s assistant.

Much of Pfizer’s research then focused on manufacturing chemicals using fermentation. Specifically, they researched on creating citric acid from enzymes produced by Aspergillus niger, a type of mold.

Curie developed a system for fermenting sugar with A. niger enzymes and producing citric acid therefrom.

Kane improved on this design by inventing a deep-tank fermentation process that used molasses instead, thus freeing Pfizer from the need to buy the much more expensive refined sugar which Curie’s process used. More importantly, this reduced Pfizers dependence on citrus growers in Europe.

John Elmer McKeen also hails from Brooklyn. Born in he attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, where he finished a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.

He immediately worked for Pfizer after graduation. Thus, McKeen garnered much experience relevant to chemical fermentation during this time from the system that Kane developed. In fact, this is when he met Kane, who would also prove important in the mass production and commercialization of penicillin.

McKeen was eventually promoted to head one of Pfizer’s manufacturing departments in before he was made to leave for England to supervise the establishment of a fermentation plant there.

During this time, penicillin was still made exclusively in the laboratory. Thus, production was excruciatingly expensive, slow and minimal.

To stress this point, the first patient to be treated using penicillin—this was incidentally made by competing pharmaceutical Merck & Co.—was on March 14,. Upon treatment, half of the world’s penicillin supply was consumed. That was how little penicillin was being produced.

And mass production research progress was not speeding up either: by June there was only enough penicillin supply in the United States to treat ten patients.

It is important to take note that the United States was at war during this time, and there was huge demand for antibiotics; hundreds of Allied soldiers were dying from infections by the day. A race for mass producing penicillin and securing a generous U.S. defense contract among major pharmaceuticals was imminent.

Curiously, Pfizer was not a pharmaceutical at that time; it only produced industrial chemicals for the food and drink industry.

Regardless, Kane’s design for deep-fermentation tanks was later adopted by Pfizer in order to produce penicillin as it was found to be the most efficient method around. Meanwhile, McKeen for his part helped ensure that the pioneering penicillin plant went up and running. His ingenuity and hard work allowed Pfizer to procure materials needed for setup despite the widespread scarcity during the war time.

This and Pfizer’s profound knowledge of fermentation processes allowed it to overtake its competition. By Pfizer was producing almost half of the United States’ total penicillin supply.

After the war, McKeen was further promoted to executive vice president for the scientific contributions and managerial excellence that he has performed.

He would ultimately become Pfizer’s president in and chairman of the board in —both posts he would serve until his retirement.

He led the company to an era of innovation, producing more groundbreaking antibiotics during his tenure. His administration also saw drastic changes in how Pfizer marketed its products; whereas it only sold its chemicals to other companies before wholesale, Pfizer first sold retail drugs during his term.

McKeen was also an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering. He died.

Kane eventually became vice president and director of biochemical research at Pfizer. He lived a long age, dying due to natural causes in at the age of 101.

No comments