Professor Pearce and peers secure Pfizer plant National Historic Chemical Landmark status

Dr. Eli Pearce

Pfizer’s 158-year-old Brooklyn plant has joined a prestigious list of National Historic Chemical Landmarks for its contribution to the use of deep-tank fermentation, a process that catapulted penicillin production during World War II, saving countless lives.

Dr. Eli Pearce, research professor of polymer chemistry and chemical engineering, former arts and sciences dean and the former director of Polytechnic's Polymer Research Institute, was involved in securing the designation awarded by the American Chemical Society.

“I felt nostalgic for when I was a kid during World War II and wanted to do something,” says Pearce of hearing Pfizer’s announcement in early 2007 that it would be closing the plant that sat just blocks from Pearce’s childhood apartment.

Pearce formed a “delegation” of members of Poly, including President Hultin, colleagues, and members of the New York Section of the American Chemical Society who had expressed interest in the past about seeking landmark status. The group approached Pfizer who was enthusiastic about the project.

Pearce’s memories of growing up near the plant at the height of the war are strong. He recalls how smells wafting from the factory permeated the neighborhood, as did the sense that everyone had a role on the home-front. “Banners with soldiers’ names were on every block,” he says. “Every family was affected by the war and we knew that what was being done at Pfizer was important.”

The process developed at Pfizer’s plant was a groundbreaking event in the chemical field, particularly in the development of antibiotics. “Antibiotics introduced a whole new approach to medicine,” notes Pearce.

Before the use of penicillin, the first true antibiotic, a scratch could turn into a life-threatening case of blood poisoning; infections such as pneumonia and rheumatic fever were often deadly. It took more than a decade though before Alexander Fleming’s 1929 discovery of penicillin would make it from the Petri dish to the patient.

By the early 1940s, English scientist Howard Florey and his colleagues at Oxford University were able to purify the drug and grew close to producing enough quantities for human testing. However, wartime conditions hampered their progress and it became clear that industrial production would be impossible in Europe.

With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, Florey traveled to the United States in the summer of 1941 to persuade American pharmaceutical companies to take up the cause of mass-producing penicillin. With government encouragement, companies such as Squibb, Merck, Lilly and Pfizer agreed to share their research and aggressively work towards a viable, high-yield production method.

The method that would take penicillin production from 663 billion units in 1944, to more than 6.8 trillion units in 1945 was an advanced method of the deep-tank fermentation process that Pfizer had been perfecting since 1919 when Pfizer chemist James Currie and his assistant, Jasper Kane, a Poly graduate, successfully pioneered the mass production of citric acid from sugar through mold fermentation.

Pfizer soon became the largest penicillin producer in the world and the wartime treatment became a “miracle drug” for millions of civilians. Pfizer’s deep-tank fermentation process used to produce penicillin lead to advancements in the production of many other drugs throughout the globe.

Next year, when the plant will have been officially closed down, Pearce and other members of Poly will attend the celebration honoring it as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Pearce hopes that even with the plant’s closing, the Pfizer-Brooklyn relationship will remain strong. Pfizer currently leases a public charter school to the city across from the plant for a dollar a year and a museum is planned for part of the plant. Low-income housing has been proposed for the site as well.

The Pfizer plant will be the 41st addition to the American Chemical Society’s National Historical Chemical Landmarks. The list includes the agricultural research of George Washington Carver at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, the Columbia dry cell by the National Carbon Company (forerunner of the Energizer Company), and Poly’s very own Polymer Research Institute.