ACS New York Section
of the New York Section Committee
2008 Annual Report
The author of this annual report and committee chair is indebted
to members of the committee, indicated below, who continue to support
the chemical heritage of the ACS New York Section.
Dr. John Sharkey, Chair
Dr. Donald Clarke
Dr. Anne O’Brien
Dr. Yorke Rhodes
The year 2008 was a particularly active year for the
committee, as designation of the sixth ACS National Historic Landmark
of the New York Section took place at the Charles Pfizer Pharmaceutical
Labs in Brooklyn, New York. This designation is intended
as a public outreach effort in order to remind the public of the significant
drug development and production that took place at this laboratory
in order to benefit humanity. The dedication ceremony took place
on June 12, 2008. More than 200 past and current employees, and
ACS members attended the event.
Designation of Deep-Tank Fermentation
at Pfizer’s Brooklyn Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark
The NY Section has been involved in several ACS National Historic
Chemical Landmarks: the Bakelyzer, Havemeyer Hall, Nucleic Acid and
Protein Chemistry at the Rockefeller University, John Draper and
the Founding of the ACS, and the Polymer Research Institute.
The New York Section is especially pleased that the
designation of this historic facility was able to take place before its planned
closing in the near future. The approved designation focuses on the development
of deep-tank fermentation that was developed by Pfizer in the 1930s and
how the technique was used to mass-produce such important chemicals
and drugs such as penicillin, which was of such great importance in saving
lives during and after World War II.
What follows is a brief timeline of some of the
highlights of the work
that has been done at the Brooklyn facility of Pfizer
From its beginnings in 1849 in a small, red brick
building in Brooklyn, Charles Pfizer and Co. grew into the largest pharmaceutical
company in the world. For nearly 160 years Pfizer's Brooklyn plant produced
chemicals and medicines for the U.S. and people around the world.
Many of Pfizer’s most important innovations took place
in Brooklyn. In the 1940s with the world at war, Pfizer took
an enormous chance, risking its resources in an effort to massproduce an incredible
new wonder drug: penicillin. Due to the Brooklyn plant’s breakthroughs
in deep-tank fermentation, the company succeeded: penicillin saved
thousands of lives, ushered in the Age of Antibiotics, and transformed
Pfizer from a chemical company to a healthcare leader.
In 1849, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Charles Pfizer
and Charles Erhart established a small chemical firm, Charles Pfizer
& Co.. The two young cousins came from Germany to seek opportunities
in America. Their first product augured the problem-solving
approach that became Pfizer’s hallmark: Intestinal worms were a common
affliction in mid-19th century America. The treatment available
at the time – santonin, an antiparasitic – was so bitter than many
people refused to take it. Combining their skills and applying a
dose of creativity, Pfizer, a chemist, and Erhart, a confectioner,
found the solution: by blending santonin with almond-toffee flavoring
and shaping it into a candy cone, they made a palatable form that people
would accept. It was an immediate success.
With the success of santonin, Pfizer and Erhart began to look for other
opportunities. From the vantage point of that tiny building in
Brooklyn – their lab, office and warehouse– they foresaw that America’s
population explosion and westward expansion would necessitate products for
industrial growth, but many essential chemicals and medicinal products were
not readily available in the United States and were being imported.
They launched the business to make these “fine chemicals” – specialty
products in small quantities. And in order to compete with the
high-quality products coming from Europe, they made an explicit commitment
to “quality;” with exacting standards. Charles Pfizer and Co.
began to produce other products, its reputation for quality grew, and
they gained a foothold.
Among their products were borax and boric acid. Initially made from crude
borate of lime mined in Italy, borax was and still is a laundry additive.
Boric acid was used as a topical antiseptic. Both were also used
as food preservatives. The company also made cream of tartar, tartaric
acid and Rochelle salts. These useful chemicals were made from
by-products of the European wine industry. Cream of tartar (for baking
powder) was a rising agent that worked more quickly than yeast and
slowed the spoilage of baked goods; Tartaric acid was used in foods, beverages
and medicines; Rochelle salts had laxative and diuretic properties
and were also used in metal-plating and mirror-making
Demand for painkillers, preservatives, and disinfectants soared during
the Civil War, and America’s chemical and pharmaceutical industry
grew to meet the needs. Pfizer began production of many products
with medicinal applications in order to treat the sick and wounded:
iodine, morphine, chloroform, mercurials and camphor.
In 1880 the company added citric acid to its product line. They
did not know how important that decision was. Decades later,
citric acid would prove to be the pivotal product for growth and, ultimately,
Pfizer’s breakthrough in penicillin and successes as a modern pharmaceutical
company. A statement made by Charles Pfizer in 1899, at the company's
50th anniversary celebration, revealed where the company stood as
it moved into the 20th century and into an increasingly competitive
marketplace: He addressed the celebrants: "Our goal has been and continues
to be the same: to find a way to produce the highest-quality products
and to perfect the most efficient way to accomplish this, in order
to serve our customers. This company has built itself on its reputation
and its dedication to these standards, and if we are to celebrate another
50 years, we must always be aware that quality is the keystone."
He retired a year later, but “Pfizer Quality” was to become a catch
phrase in the industry.
The 20th Century
The turn of the century was a watershed year for the company. Having
started with one product half a century earlier, Charles Pfizer and
Co. was now a leader of the American chemical businesses. But
Charles Erhart had died early in the early 1890s, and Charles Pfizer was
now nearing eighty. He saw the need to secure the firm’s future.
He incorporated the company, and he began to entrust the company to
new management, including both family members and nonfamily members.
Charles Pfizer died in 1906. The first new President was Charles Pfizer,
Jr., and then Emile Pfizer – the youngest of Charles Pfizer’s three
sons – took over.
The Era of Citric Acid
Although Pfizer began producing citric acid in 1880, and demand was increasing
for both industrial purposes and America’s new “soft drinks” such
as Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, it was still a relatively minor product.
Citric acid was made in small batches from lemons and limes, which
were mixed with calcium oxide (quicklime) to make calcium citrate.
In Brooklyn, the ingredients were processed to produce citric acid
crystals. Pfizer imported the raw material from California,
Florida, Italy and the West Indies.
By 1913 the company was producing seventy thousand pounds of citric acid
a month. But availability of sufficient citrus was erratic
Pfizer was at the mercy of its suppliers and the weather. West Indies
and Italy. The company began looking for ways to make citric acid
without imported citrus fruit products
With the start of World War I, the cost of raw materials rose. Deliveries
from Europe were cut. Supplying medicines and chemicals for the war
helped the company survive, but overall sales declined. Now, more
than ever, Pfizer needed to find other ways to produce citric acid.
Dr. James Currie, a brilliant food chemist, was hired to tackle the
challenge. Currie had a daring idea: to produce citric acid without
In 1919, Currie and his 16-year-old assistant, Jasper Kane, began working
on a new process known as SUCIAC (Sugar Under Conversion Into Acid
Citric).The goal was to use fermentation to convert sugar to produce
citric acid. Everyone involved with the project was sworn to secrecy. If
successful, Pfizer would be free from the grip of its suppliers.
SUCIAC was promising, but initial output was low and costs were high.
This was also a period of great financial strain. After the end
of World War I, a recession hit. By 1920 sales had decreased by 6%,
and by 1921 they dropped 52% lower. The company suspended the
production of several products, but even in this difficult time they
continued to back Currie and Kane. Pfizer’s management saw the potential
for SUCIAC to transform not just Pfizer, but the entire face of the
citric acid industry.
It took them years to improve the fermentation process, but yields began
to rise, and in 1924 they had seen sufficient success to build a
SUCIAC building at the Brooklyn site. It was a huge risk, since it
required them to shift resources away from other products, such as borax,
that had been important for decades. By 1926, Pfizer outdistanced
the companies that relied on lemons and limes, and they soon dominated
the citric acid market.
SUCIAC was proving to be a great success, but there were still limitations.
Making huge quantities in shallow pans was impossible.
Jasper Kane and his colleague, Alexander Finlay, tried the SUCIAC process
in huge, deep tanks filled with mold and sugar-water. But they couldn’t
get in enough air for the mold to survive. Finally, they invented
a method to bubble air into the mixture and keep the fluid moving
with an electric stirrer. It worked. In 1929, Pfizer produced
almost six million pounds of citric acid – without a drop of citrus.
In 1933, Kane and Finlay made another fundamental change: they began
to use molasses rather than refined sugar as raw material. This
was the process that would ultimately unlock the secret for large-scale
production of penicillin.
Across the Atlantic, another profound event occurred: In
1928, Scottish microbiologist Alexander Fleming was working in his
laboratory in England. He was growing bacteria in Petrie dishes.
The legend is that Dr. Fleming left some of the Petrie dishes on the
windowsill, and when he came back to the lab he discovered that the
bacteria had become contaminated by molds in the air. He saw that
something important was happening: a yellow liquid from one of the
molds was killing the bacteria. He determined that the
mold was a common black mold called penicillium notatum. Dr. Fleming
called the yellow liquid penicillin. Experiments with penicillin
proved it could kill disease-causing germs. But the yellow liquid
was so unpredictable and difficult to purify that Fleming gave up his study
In the late 1930s, two scientists at Oxford University in England, Howard
Florey and Ernest Chain, came across Fleming’s work, and took it
a step further. They discovered a way to grow enough penicillin to
help a gravely ill man live longer. Still, it was not tenable as a
medicine, since it was unstable
When World War II began in 1939, the medical community sought ways to
fight the deadly bacterial infections caused by battlefield injuries.
As with World War I and the Civil War, more soldiers died from infections
than from direct battle.
In the UK, researchers sought ways to take Florey and Chain’s work to
make penicillin for the war. But they couldn’t grow enough to
help the thousands of soldiers who needed it. England was too war-torn
to manufacture penicillin, so the government turned to American industry
In 1941 Pfizer was among four companies that responded to the U.S. government’s
challenge to see which company could mass-produce the world’s first
Jasper Kane seized the challenge. Pfizer began making small batches
for testing at Columbia University in Manhattan. The penicillin
was so delicate that it would often die during the cab ride from Brooklyn
to Manhattan. The team saw progress, and in 1942 Kane proposed
producing penicillin using the deep-tank method Pfizer had perfected
with citric acid. It was a risky idea. To utilize the deep tanks,
Pfizer would have to stop production of profitable products and switch
to making penicillin. They had taken a similar gamble over a
decade earlier to invest in SUCIAC. Pfizer’s senior management voted
to invest millions of dollars in a still unproven process.
On September 20, 1942, Pfizer purchased the old Rubel Ice Plant on Marcy
Avenue, a few blocks from Pfizer’s original plant. They immediately
began rebuilding it as the world’s first penicillin factory.
Because of the war, it was almost impossible to get the supplies needed for
construction. Workers labored around the clock to complete the plant
and refine the tricky production process.
“The faster this building is completed... the quicker
our wounded men get penicillin, the new lifesaving drug.”
On March 1, 1943, Pfizer made history, opening the world’s first penicillin
- Sign posted by John L. Smith at the Brooklyn plant
Two years later, Pfizer became the world’s largest supplier of penicillin
and helped save millions of lives. This was the penicillin
that went to the battlefields. Approximately 90% of the penicillin
that went ashore with Allied forces on D-Day was made at Pfizer’s
After the War, Pfizer continued to improve penicillin production.
Since Alexander Fleming’s initial findings, penicillin had been a yellow
color. However, in 1946 scientists discovered that the color was
caused by impurities. Pfizer developed a crystallization method to remove
the yellow. The outcome: pure white penicillin that was stable at
room temperature and kept its potency for years.
Many other companies began manufacturing their own penicillin using the
techniques Pfizer had pioneered. With increased production capabilities
and increased competition, prices plummeted. From Pfizer had
to look for other opportunities. They realized the importance of antibiotics
to the pharmaceutical industry and set out to discover its own antibiotics,
beginning its first intensive research and development initiative.
As scientists began to look for new antibiotics, they looked for other
sources. They knew that disease germs did not survive in the
ground. Determined to find the next miracle medicine Pfizer launched
a worldwide soil collection and testing program
They collected over 135,000 soil samples from around the world, and brought
them back to the labs in Brooklyn. Each sample was suspended
in water and then incubated on a culture plate. Mold colonies were
then tested against harmful bacteria. If the mold killed the bacteria, the
researchers would isolate it and test it further.
“We got soil samples from cemeteries, we had balloons
sent up in the air collecting soil samples
that were wind blown, we got soil samples from the bottom of mine shafts,
we got soil from the bottom of the ocean.
We got soil from the desert; we got it from the tops of mountains, and
the bottoms of mountains and in between.”
- Dr. Ben Sobin, Pfizer Research Scientist
In 1949, Pfizer hit “pay dirt.” A micro-organism in soil from America’s
Midwest proved effective against a wide range of deadly bacteria. Terramycin,
derived from the Latin for “earth fungus,” was the first antibiotic
developed exclusively by Pfizer scientists.
Terramycin also marked a radical change in the company’s business strategy.
For 100 years, Pfizer had sold its products to other manufacturers
who would then make and sell the final product. Terramycin was
such a breakthrough that Pfizer decided to create its own business in order
to sell directly to hospitals, physicians and pharmacies. It
was the first pharmaceutical sold in the United States under the Pfizer
label. By 1953, Pfizer had hired 1,300 “detail men,” the term
for sales representatives, to promote the company’s new medicines.
The launch of Terramycin also led to expansion in Mexico, Canada, then
soon South America, Europe and eventually the Middle East, the Far
East and Africa. Pfizer built a worldwide network of manufacturing
Respectfully submitted, Dr. John Sharkey Committee Chair