ACS New York Section

History 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 using citrus.

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 of it. 

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 for help.

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 “wonder drug.”

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.” 

Sign posted by John L. Smith at the Brooklyn plant

On March 1, 1943, Pfizer made history, opening the world’s first penicillin 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 Brooklyn plant.

Post-WW II
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  plants.  

Respectfully submitted, Dr. John Sharkey Committee Chair