In June 1944, Allied forces hit the Normandy beaches with about 7,000 ships, 148,000 vehicles and 570,000 tons of supplies—plus something that, for the thousands wounded there and elsewhere, proved more important than all the hardware: penicillin, thanks in part to G. Raymond Rettew, a mushroom man from West Chester.
Rettew, a local boy who made his name in the 1930s breeding mushroom spawn, turned to penicillin after Pearl Harbor. The first true antibiotic, penicillin had been known of for years, but only as a laboratory curiosity. Rettew pioneered mass-production methods that made penicillin something every medic could carry onto the battlefield.
“The penicillin [Rettew] produced, while incidentally saving many lives, served as the basis for its effective use during Gen. Eisenhower’s successful invasion of Europe,” said Robert D. Coghill, the federal scientist who evaluated Rettew’s original proposal.
Published estimates of the lives saved by penicillin range from 12 to 15 percent of all Allied casualties in World War II. Based on the official count of 684,000 U.S. wounded, more than 100,000 Americans lived who otherwise would’ve died—3,000 on D-Day alone.
Uncle Sam even used penicillin in war propaganda. Posters declaring “He’ll live to come home—because of penicillin!” attempted to dampen fears of combat and possible draft resistance.
Born on East Washington Street, Rettew was the son of a lawyer who also served eight years as a West Chester postmaster. His father got him summer jobs at the post office. Rettew also worked at a slaughterhouse, Strode Pork Products, where he became friendly with owner Joseph W. Strode.
Swarthmore College was the preferred school in Rettew’s family and social circle. But his love was chemistry, in which Swarthmore was not particularly strong. So, after high school, Rettew attended the University of Delaware, where, he later wrote, “in one year, I had as many chemistry courses as would have taken two years at Swarthmore.”
Rettew then transferred to Swarthmore, where he worked as an unpaid assistant in the chemistry department. He synthesized 20 new organic compounds, later tested on animals at Johns Hopkins University.
“It was time that would have been better used in studying German, which was being badly neglected,” he wrote.
Rettew so neglected German, in fact, that he flunked it twice. As a result, he never graduated. In 1925, Rettew was engaged, and retaking German would’ve required the couple to postpone their wedding. German and a degree seemed less important, and the couple married
Rettew’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer, so he tried to oblige his family by working in his office. Unbeknownst to Rettew, Swarthmore’s chemistry department had recommended him for a position at Hires, the root beer manufacturer. The call came just a month after joining his father.
“One of the best things I did for Hires was the introduction of pH control,” wrote Rettew. “This was new, and much was not in the textbooks. It was necessary to build a pH meter and make my own set of conversion tables.”
Rettew’s father-in-law was in the mushroom business, so family conversation often centered on its problems—especially the scarcity of quality spawn (the equivalent of seed). Poor mushroom spawn meant poor crops. The business needed scientific help. Rettew discussed the issues with his old friend Strode as both rode the train on their daily commute. “One morning, Strode very simply declared, ‘When you are ready to go into the mushroom spawn business, let me know,’” said Rettew. “That very evening, I went to see him, and for many years to come, we were partners.”
With Strode’s money and Rettew’s knowledge, they incorporated as the Chester County Mushroom Laboratories and built a small plant on East Rosedale Avenue. There, CCML pioneered the sterile cultivation of mushroom spawn. In three years, the company was the largest spawn supplier in the United States. Rettew left Hires in June of 1929, and the Great Depression started a few months later. “Theoretically, this was a risky time to start a new business,” Rettew wrote. “However, the operation was successful from the start.”
The 1930s were busy. Rettew consulted with Clarence Birdseye on the freezing of mushrooms when the inventor of frozen food began processing vegetables. He published The Manual of Mushroom Culture, which served as the industry bible in that era. Rettew also patented a new flat-sided, widemouthed jar in which to grow mushroom spawn. Producers had previously used glass milk bottles, but many spawn were destroyed while being removed through the narrow mouths. CCML also spun off a separate company, Concord Foods, which canned mushrooms.
Rettew also traveled widely, consulting with farmers who bought his spawn. “It was necessary to make a circle around the United States and Canada once a year, and some places more often,” he wrote. “These were indeed the ‘bread and butter’ years.”
With war approaching, the farsighted Rettew led an industry effort to scientifically document the food value of mushrooms. Being deemed a “nonessential” food, he knew, could lead to wartime rationing that would effectively force many growers out of the business. Fortunately, a report showed mushrooms had “high vitamin content and good protein value without fattening carbohydrates.” As a result, they were later rated “essential.” The Mushroom Growers’ Association gave Rettew a scroll and $1,000 for this work.
Mushrooms, of course, are a fungus. Rettew’s hobby was studying substances excreted by mushroom fungi in his home laboratory. This led to the work of a London researcher whose published writings mentioned one unusual fungi byproduct: penicillin.
Andrew Fleming discovered penicillin by accident in London in 1928. He was sorting petri dishes of staphylococcus, the bacteria that causes boils, sore throats and abscesses. One dish was dotted with bacteria colonies, except in an area where mold was growing. The zone around the mold—later identified as penicillin—was clear of bacteria. Fleming found that his “mold juice” could kill a wide range of harmful bacteria, but it was unstable outside the laboratory. Other researchers solved the stability problem and, by 1941, early experiments had proven that penicillin could kill deadly streptococci in human beings. By then, though, wartime conditions made production difficult.
“I was unaware of [penicillin’s] importance,” wrote Rettew, who first read the English reports around this time. “These articles indicated that penicillin held great promise for healing infected wounds. Therefore, the penicillin work was pulled off the shelf, and intensive work started on it. This would be our way of contributing to the war effort.”
Rettew used a contact at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reach the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which coordinated projects relevant to the war effort. (He still had trouble getting attention, something he later attributed to the fact that the Manhattan Project was headquartered in the same building.) The director, A.N. Richards, turned to Coghill. “I wish you would take a day to go up to Philadelphia to size up a situation,” he said. “There’s a mushroom man who wants to get into penicillin production.”
Coghill was extremely skeptical. “But Dr. Richards, they grow mushrooms on horse manure compost, while penicillin has to be produced in pure culture,” he said. “It’s just impossible!”
“Well, I wish you would go anyway,” Richards responded.
Coghill went. Rettew met his train at Paoli and soon satisfied his concern that he might not know what he was doing.
What Rettew offered was understanding, a facility in which to work and connections. Strode golfed with the chairman of the firm that owned John Wyeth & Brother, predecessor of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. The spawn-makers had no pharmaceutical experience. This led to a valuable alliance.
Mass production would have to be on a far larger scale than petri dishes. A new building—double the size—was constructed and equipped with a refrigeration room and four 100-gallon, glass-lined tanks. That was later outgrown.
Rettew discovered that adding banana oil to the tanks would separate penicillin from the culture in which it grew. A Sharples cream separator—a centrifuge manufactured in West Chester and used by dairy farmers—separated the oil from the penicillin.
“It was the solution of this problem that finally made possible our winning the race for mass production of penicillin,” wrote Rettew in 1973. “Penicillin production today would not be possible without this method.”
The first shipment of penicillin was delivered to the government in June 1943, with more than 90 percent of it going to the military. By November, Rettew was producing 32,000 cultures daily in CCML’s flat-sided glass bottles. The cultures incubated for a week, then were separated and freeze-dried to produce a dry, yellow powder that was 12 percent penicillin. That was later increased to 65 percent. Visitors came from most major pharmaceutical companies, plus the British and Canadian surgeons general.
“As a result of this program in 1943, the first penicillin was produced commercially,” Rettew wrote. “We produced more penicillin than the total of all other manufacturers in the world.”
Rettew’s operation was not sufficient to supply the entire nation, much less its allies. (To do so in that quantity, manufacturers today use huge tanks similar to those for brewing beer.) But his supply allowed the Medical Corps to gain experience in its use as they prepared for the invasions of 1944. While the pharmaceutical giants geared up large-scale production, Rettew wrote, “the government would not allow [us] to change over to the deep-culture method because ours was a dependable source.”
Rettew never went back to mushrooms. Instead, as director of penicillin production for Wyeth, he helped set up manufacturing facilities in South America and elsewhere. In 1945, when Wyeth honored Fleming at a dinner in Philadelphia, a newspaper columnist described watching Fleming and Rettew lift toasts to each other.
“We suspect that Fleming’s deepest affection may be for men like Rettew—men who work alone, improvising, trying and casting aside, balancing hope and despair during the late lonely hours of the night,” wrote Charles Fisher of the Philadelphia Record. “That is the way Sir Alexander worked in England, and that was the way Rettew worked in West Chester.”
The guys on the landing craft were lucky he did.
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