|The Penicillin Problem
In early 1942, Merck & Co. began producing penicillin with the intention of making
it available for soldiers in the field. Up to that point, the company was able to
produce only tiny amounts of the drug, making it a truly precious commodity. They
needed a way to mass produce penicillin.
While chemists and biologists worked frantically to devise a better production method,
Pauling began to consider a completely different approach to the problem. What if
smaller quantities of penicillin were needed to treat a patient? One of the biggest
issues with conventional gelatin-based plasma substitutes was that they typically
left the bloodstream at a rapid rate, requiring multiple injections. Pauling and
Campbell's process for treating gelatin in the oxypolygelatin program had caused molecular
chains to form and required more time to cycle out of the blood. Pauling theorized
that, by pairing a penicillin molecule with a protein molecule, the substance would
remain in the bloodstream for a longer period of time, greatly increasing its effectiveness.
Pauling first began presenting his and Campbell's idea for penicillin in the fall
of 1943, and correspondence from the OSRD and CMR demonstrated some official interest
in their suggestion. After conducting more experiments with Oxypolygelatin, Pauling
had enough evidence to move forward. In May 1944, he sent a proposal and contract
request to the CMR. The proposal was accepted and in September he received 1,000,000
units of the drug for experimentation. By 1944, the Northern Research Lab in Illinois
had developed a method for producing penicillin from a corn byproduct. Penicillin
had gone from being a novelty drug to a major medical landmark and, in light of this
advance, Pauling was receiving official attention. A.N. Richards, the chairman of
the CMR, seemed particularly interested in the work, noting in one letter that his
request for additional information was "simply a suggestion which emerges from my
interest and curiosity."
Unfortunately, all of the enthusiasm that Richards, Pauling, and Campbell could muster
wasn't enough to make the project succeed. At the time of the experiments, the molecular
structure of penicillin was still classified, forcing Pauling to make guesses as to
the way the molecule could combine with gelatin. What should have been a well-planned
series of experiments instead became a game of guess-and-check.
By late December 1944, Pauling was ready to submit his first report and the results
were not promising. Pauling and Campbell had treated the penicillin samples with
urea, alkaline chemicals, and high temperatures - each a denaturing agent meant to
break down the penicillin and reform it with the gelatin. On the contrary, these
treatments appeared to cause the penicillin to deactivate. Instead of causing the
penicillin to bond with the gelatin, the denaturing agents were destroying it.
Pauling and Campbell provided Richards with a one-page report accompanied by a two-sentence
cover letter. The investigation was going nowhere and there were other projects to
be looked after. What the researchers didn't say was that Howard Florey and his team
at the University of Oxford had discovered a method to mass produce penicillin and
were in the process of creating a large cache for military use. The need for augmented
penicillin was gone.
After the informal report given to Richards, no other mention of the penicillin project
appears in the Pauling Papers. It seems that the project was quietly discontinued
without so much as the traditional report to the CMR.