Rockefeller Foundation's Contributions to Antibiotics

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1941

British scientist Alexander Fleming first uncovered the ability of mold to stem bacteria growth in 1928, but his finding drew little attention. It was Australian scientist Howard Florey and a team at Oxford University who revealed the therapeutic potential of mold-derived penicillin to squash bacterial infections and finally developed techniques for producing penicillin antibiotics.

Florey’s scientific training had been partly financed by the Rockefeller Foundation when it awarded him a Rockefeller Traveling Fellowship in 1925, which allowed him to work for a year in the lab of University of Pennsylvania pharmacologist Alfred Richards. Afterward, Florey finished his Ph.D. at Cambridge University.

Additional Rockefeller Foundation funding supported Florey’s post-doctoral research at Oxford, from 1936 onward. Throughout a period of years, Rockefeller gave him about a half-million dollars in contemporary value, for research support, equipment, and supplies. With this crucial philanthropic help, Florey assembled a large team of a couple dozen investigators and technicians. By early 1940, they had zeroed in on penicillin as their special focus, first finding the compound to be both safe and effective in curbing bacteria in mice, then conducting their first human trials in early 1941.

It quickly became clear that penicillin had the potential to be one of the most important medical discoveries in history. For the first time, there existed a safe compound capable of killing the living bodily infections that gave deadly force to sepsis, pneumonia, diphtheria, meningitis, rheumatic fever, syphilis, scarlet fever, endocarditis, gonorrhea, and many other afflictions. The problem quickly became how to manufacture usable quantities of the miracle drug, which required laborious culturing and concentration.

In 1941, the Rockefeller Foundation brought Florey to the United States to make the case for a rapid mobilization to speed penicillin production. He convinced U.S. scientists of the import of his discovery, and with help from Alfred Richards, his Rockefeller Traveling Fellowship colleague, he enlisted assistance in fermenting and freeze-drying mass quantities of penicillin. Large-scale production soon began and by 1943 the new antibiotic was being used to treat wounded soldiers in North Africa.

By the end of World War II, the drug had been produced widely enough to protect nearly all Allied troops. Penicillin and its successor antibiotics revolutionized medicine and saved literally hundreds of millions of lives. Florey and two other scientists were awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in medicine.