An Illinois cantaloupe and the D-Day invasion

Photo from the National WWII Museum
Earlier this month America and the world celebrated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the morning that thousands of Allied soldiers splashed ashore in Normandy to liberate occupied Western Europe from Nazi Germany. Countless tales of heroism, ingenuity, sacrifice and bravery have been told from the events around June 6, 1944. But one story that has not gotten as much attention involves the development of an item that would save innumerable lives on D-Day and virtually every day after.

And it hinges on a Peoria market’s moldy cantaloupe.

Scholars of the American Civil War have noted that a large number of soldiers who were killed in the conflict; possibly even a majority; died not of battle wounds but of illness, specifically infections. Battlefield medicine was primitive, sanitation and infection were not very well understood, if at all, and precautions that today are taken without a second thought were unheard of in the 1860s. As a result, thousands of soldiers on both sides gave their lives due to conditions that today would be treatable if not avoided altogether.

By 1940, medical science had advanced by leaps and bounds, but the problem of non-life-threatening wounds becoming death sentences due to infection was still a serious challenge. The crisis became especially acute that year when German planes started raining death on British cities and their populations during the bombing campaign known to history as the Blitz. Wounded civilians were being brought into British hospitals only to become sick with infections that doctors seemed unable to prevent. The same was happening to British soldiers on battlefields around the world.

Most frustrating was the knowledge that a cure existed, but could not be produced rapidly enough.

In 1928, Scottish physician Alexander Fleming had discovered benzylpenicillin, the world’s first antibiotic. His studies were motivated in part by observations he had made a decade earlier on World War I battlefields of the ineffectiveness of antiseptic solutions used to treat wounded soldiers. The 1928 discovery was something of an accident, but it was clear that the source of the substance which had killed the bacteria in his laboratory was a certain fungus found in a culture which had inadvertently been left out to mold.

Thus penicillin was discovered. Producing it in amounts sufficient to do any good, however, would prove to be a difficult task.

Growing the mold was only the first step. The actual penicillin itself had to be isolated from the mold, produced in quantity, made into some kind of form that could be reliably administered to patients and survive long enough to attack and defeat the infection. An Australian scientist working at Oxford, Howard Florey, developed a more efficient way of producing penicillin, but more work needed to be done.

There was also the matter of the German bombs exploding around most of the laboratories in Britain.

Desperate, the British government reached out across the Atlantic to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for assistance. The USDA had a solution, and it involved a laboratory in Peoria, Illinois.

The USDA had built four research labs around the country in the 1930s for the purpose of researching additional uses for surplus agricultural products. One of these labs; called the Northern Regional Research Laboratory by USDA, but known simply as the Ag Lab; was built in Peoria because of its proximity to a large supply of corn. Peoria was also the home of the Hiram Walker Distilleries, making it the whiskey capital of the world. That combination made Peoria an ideal location for studying fermentation and its many uses, such as how to extract certain materials from microbes: exactly what the researchers were trying to do with penicillin. Now they just needed to find the right bacteria and a way to grow it fast enough. Until they did, the project was going to be stalled.

A worldwide search was launched. The U.S. Army instructed its pilots to bring back samples of dirt from every spot on the globe where they landed. The dirt was tested for the appropriate bacteria, but none was found. Instead, the hero of the search was not some dashing Army aviator, but a woman shopping in a Peoria market who had heard about the research effort and who wondered if the moldy cantaloupe in front of her on the store’s shelf might hold the answer.

Fortunately for humanity, it did. Unfortunately for historians, nobody thought to record the shopper’s name.

Planning for the Allied invasion of France had been going on since 1942, and while it was impossible to predict the number of casualties, all involved expected the number of killed and wounded to be horrific. If a vast number of wounded soldiers could not be saved from death by infection, not only would the war effort be in jeopardy, but the scope of the tragedy to a nation already bearing so much pain would be unimaginable. The scientists had to come through.

Dr. Andrew Moyer. Photo from the
National Inventors Hall of Fame
Back in Peoria, it turned out that the mold on the cantaloupe (designated NRRL-1951) was exactly
the right strain that was needed: one which could be rapidly cultured in the Ag lab. It grew in such a way that greater concentrations could be produced. Dr. Andrew Moyer worked to accelerate the process and yield more penicillin.

Scientists at labs and universities around the Midwest worked with different mutations of the strain, and experimented with one different growth medium after another. They hit the jackpot when they found the combination of corn steep liquor; which had come from the fermentation process used to make corn starch or ethanol; and the use of “submerged fermentation,” which involved growing the bacteria in a vat, rather than just on the surface of a petri dish or a pan.

American laboratories and more than 20 pharmaceutical companies were now able to churn out penicillin in larger and larger quantities. One of those companies was Schenley Laboratories, which produced an informational pamphlet calling penicillin, “the greatest healing agent of this war!”

“When the thunderous battles of this war have subsided to pages of silent print in a history book, the greatest news event of World War II may well be the discovery and development – not of some vicious secret weapon that destroys – but of a weapon that saves lives. That weapon, of course, is penicillin,” the pamphlet exclaims.

In 1942, penicillin produced in the United States was used for the first time: to treat a patient who was suffering from septicemia, or blood poisoning. The treatment was successful, but it used half the known supply of the drug. By 1943, the labs had produced enough penicillin to treat only ten patients. Soon America’s War Production Board began planning for the mass production and distribution of penicillin to battlefronts all over the world. Scientists worked to shape the substance into a pharmaceutical use in time for what everyone expected to be titanic clashes of armies in Western Europe.

In clinical trials in 1943, penicillin performed better than any other drug or antiseptic in treating infections. Trials on wounded soldiers in North Africa that same year were similarly successful. Now the process accelerated, and by the time of the D-Day landing, more than two million doses of penicillin had been produced, enough of the life-saving medication to satisfy the requirements of the Allied armies getting ready to hit the beaches of France.

Casualties were high on D-Day, and during the bloody fighting that followed. But the presence of penicillin made a meaningful difference in the numbers of Allied soldiers who came home alive. An estimate published in Military History Magazine in 2013 claimed that as many as 100,000 Allied soldiers benefitted from treatment with penicillin in Europe alone during the eleven months between the Normandy invasion and V-E Day.

By the time the war ended, a year later, more than 600 billion doses per year were being produced. Battlefield deaths and amputations due to infection declined once penicillin was readily available. Deaths from gangrene were cut almost in half in the last 12 months of the war as compared to the early years before penicillin was available. The drug was made available to American civilians early in 1945.

Dr. Fleming, along with Florey and another researcher Ernst Boris Chain, would share the 1945 Nobel Prize for their discovery. Another important figure in the research was Dorothy Hodgkin, a pioneer in x-ray crystallography who discovered the structure of penicillin and helped lead to its mass production, though her work was not published until after the war. She would be awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964. Dr. Moyer earned a patent in 1948 for penicillin’s mass production.

Peoria's Ag Lab in 1942
Meanwhile, the Ag Lab went right on with its research. For its world-changing discovery, the Peoria Ag lab was named an International Historic Chemical Landmark. By the 1950s, it had discovered dextran, an important “plasma extender.” Research in Peoria has benefitted Illinois agriculture by advancing the study of ethanol, the use of soybeans and many other corn products. The lab also developed the absorbent material now found in many diapers. The Peoria Ag Lab’s discoveries have produced products that improve quality of life, and products that save lives.

That shopper in Peoria probably didn’t know it, but she played a crucial role in the development of antibiotics, an advance in medical science which has saved millions of lives.