The involvement of the pharmaceutical companies
While Norman Heatley remained in Peoria helping the NRRL staff to get the penicillin work started, Howard Florey visited various
pharmaceutical companies to try to interest them in the drug. Although Florey was disappointed in the immediate results of his trip,
three of the companies (Merck, Squibb, and Lilly) had actually conducted some penicillin research before Florey's arrival and Pfizer
seemed on the verge of investigating the drug as well. At this time, however, the promise of penicillin was still based on only
limited clinical trials.
Florey next visited his old friend Alfred Newton Richards, then vice president for medical affairs at the University of Pennsylvania.
More importantly, Richards was chair of the Committee on Medical Research (CMR) of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).
The OSRD had been created in June, 1941, to assure that adequate attention was given to research on scientific and medical problems relating
to national defense. Richards had great respect for Florey and trusted his judgment about the potential value of penicillin. He approached
the four drug firms that Florey indicated had shown some interest in the drug (Merck, Squibb, Lilly, and Pfizer) and informed them that
they would be serving the national interest if they undertook penicillin production and that there might be support from the
Richards convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 8, 1941, to exchange information on company and government research and to plan
a collaborative research program to expedite penicillin production. In addition to representatives of the CMR, the National Research Council,
and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, participants included research directors Randolph T. Major of Merck; George A. Harrop of
the Squibb Institute for Medical Research; Jasper Kane of Pfizer; and Y. SubbaRow of Lederle. The next CMR penicillin conference, held in New
York in December, ten days after Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the Second World War, was more decisive. At this meeting, which was attended
by the heads of Merck, Squibb, Pfizer, and Lederle, as well as the company research directors, Robert Coghill's report on the success at the
NRRL with corn steep liquor was encouraging to the industry leaders present.
As Coghill later recalled, George W. Merck, who had been pessimistic about the possibility of producing adequate quantities of
penicillin given the constraints of available fermentation techniques and yields,"... immediately spoke up, saying that if these results
could be confirmed in their laboratories, it was possible to produce the kilo of material for Florey, and industry would do it!". It was
agreed that although the companies would pursue their research activities independently, they would keep the CMR informed of developments,
and the Committee could make the information more widely available (with the permission of the company involved) if that were deemed in
the public interest.
Although there was some concern that investments in fermentation processes might be wasted if a commercially-viable synthesis of penicillin
were developed, other companies also began to show an interest in the drug. Some firms worked out collaborative agreements of their own
(e.g., Merck and Squibb in February 1942, joined by Pfizer in September). Merck's pilot plant continued to produce several hundred liters
of penicillin culture per week using both flasks and tray, and in December, Heatley joined the Merck research staff for several months,
where he introduced the Oxford cup plate method of penicillin assay, which soon became a standard method industry-wide. By March 1942
enough penicillin had been produced under OSRD auspices to treat the first patient (Mrs. Ann Miller, in New Haven, Connecticut); a further
ten cases were treated by June 1942, all with penicillin supplied by Merck & Co., Inc.