John Elmer McKeen

John Elmer McKeen

John McKeen with Pfizer products, including penicillin and Terramycin. Courtesy Pfizer, Inc.

On March 1, 1944, the pharmaceutical firm of Pfizer and Company opened the first commercial plant for large-scale production of the antibiotic penicillin in Brooklyn, New York. Chemical engineer John Elmer McKeen (1903–1978), superintendent of Pfizer’s Brooklyn works, played a critical role in creating the production facility.

A native of Brooklyn, McKeen graduated from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1926 as a chemical engineer and immediately went to work for Pfizer. In the 1920s Pfizer was innovating commercial processes by using fermentation to produce chemicals: citric acid by the action on molasses of enzymes from the mold Aspergillus niger, and gluconic acid by the action on glucose of this same mold, cultivated by deep-tank fermentation. Young McKeen, a process development engineer, was very much a part of that exciting period through his close association with the research and development departments. He was appointed head of one of the manufacturing departments in 1935 and was later posted to England to set up a fermentation department there.

In the early 1940s Pfizer, like other companies producing penicillin for the war effort, used surface-fermentation methods. In these methods, the Penicillium mold was grown in hundreds of ordinary laboratory flasks and other necessarily shallow vessels in order to provide oxygen to the mold. Tending to all these vessels was a labor-intensive process, as was extraction of the drug from the mold. Many scientists recognized that only deep-tank fermentation methods would be economically feasible, and experimentation on these began at several companies and most successfully at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Northern Regional Laboratory in Peoria, Illinois. By early 1943 Pfizer’s efforts began to yield results. Because of its strong background in fermentation processes, Pfizer forged ahead more quickly than other companies. By the end of the summer of 1943 a 2,000-gallon pilot fermentor was up and running. The plant—a converted ice-making plant purchased by McKeen—was completed the following March; it contained fourteen 7,000-gallon tanks plus equipment for recovery and purification of the penicillin. In 1944 Pfizer was able to produce more than 100 times what it had produced by surface fermentation the previous year and nearly half the nation’s total production for 1944.

McKeen, a zealous, innovative, hardworking man who loved people, was destined to go far at Pfizer. In the years before the war he moved through many departments at the company, learning the intimate details of the processes and improving on them, solving problems, saving money, and increasing efficiency. During the war McKeen spent much of his time on penicillin. Spurred by the shortages of materials brought on by the war, he aggressively hunted down the machinery and pipes needed to make the deep-tank process work. His purchase of the old Brooklyn ice-making plant with refrigeration equipment that could be reused in the penicillin plant was the primary reason that the project took less than five months. Once the new plant was up and running, John L. Smith, then a vice president and later president of Pfizer, donated massive quantities of the drug to New York hospitals. McKeen and Smith frequently spent their weekends visiting the patients who were receiving treatment, seeing for themselves the miracle of penicillin.

After the war McKeen became executive vice president and then president of Pfizer (1949–1965), adding in 1950 the responsibility of chairman of the board. He led Pfizer through the “antibiotic era,” which included such triumphs as Terramycin and tetracycline. It was also during this period that Pfizer decided to market its prescription drugs under its own label to retail pharmacies and hospitals. (Up until 1950 Pfizer sold its pharmaceuticals in bulk to other companies.)

McKeen was an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering. He was married to his wife, Noreen F. Condon, for 51 years.

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