Dutch microbiologists, working in secret during the last months of WWII, developed procedures for making penicillin.
Among microbiologists, The Delft School is well known for its contributions to the development of general microbiology. Many scientists from the Delft tradition became industrial microbiologists, and some of them were employed by the Nederlandsche Gist-en Spiritusfabriek, the Netherlands Yeast and Spirit Factory (NG&SF), one of the oldest fermentation companies in the world.
When Germans occupied the Netherlands during World War II, a team at NG&SF (which is today DSM Sinochem Pharmaceuticals), secretly isolated, characterized, and produced penicillin — working under the codename "Bacinol." Although "penicillin" now refers to a familiar group of beta-lactam antibiotics, it initially was used to describe "mold juice" with antibacterial properties — in essence, a crude filtrate that contained one or more beta-lactam metabolites and their impurities.
This 18-month project, which was completely independent of the acclaimed American and British efforts to produce penicillin, was conducted under far more challenging circumstances, without access to the scientific literature, corroborating data, and much in the way of valuable fermentation equipment. Moreover, amid the roundups and deportations taking place throughout western Europe, a Jewish physician, who was interned in a transit camp, provided key information to help the NG&SF team effort. Although this story is little known, parts of this narrative are more like components of a thriller than an undertaking in industrial microbiology.
Why isn't this remarkable story about the Bacinol project better known?
Perhaps the main reason for the lack of fanfare was the reality of life in postwar Europe, with acute shortages, rampant malnutrition, and widespread disease. In most of Europe, demand for penicillin far outstripped the supply, and it became a valuable black market commodity. However, the Netherlands quickly produced sufficient supplies of penicillin. By 1946, NG&SF was supplying all the penicillin needed by Dutch hospitals; by 1948, it was supplying all the penicillin needed for the entire country; and by 1949 it began exporting penicillin. Eventually, NG&SF became one of the world's largest penicillin producers. The circumspect and ethical management of NG&SF felt no need to draw attention to themselves in those difficult times. It was more than sufficient reward to save lives and to help the Dutch economy.
In 1950, NG&SF was awarded royal status (Koninklijke); in 1967 KNG&SF merged with Pharmaceutische Fabrieken v/h Brocades Stheeman & Pharmacia to become Gist-Brocades NV; in 1998, Gist-Brocades became part of DSM, a Dutch chemical company and in 2011 DSM put its antibiotics business in a joint venture with Sinochem Group of China to form DSM Sinochem Pharmaceuticals.