A Hoosier and World War II’s Wonder Drug

By Mary Giorgio

At the dawn of World War II, the Allied troops faced a significant problem. They had no effective treatment for battlefield infections. Without the development of new drugs, thousands of men would die from their wounds.

It was a Hoosier man who was on the forefront of the race to find a new treatment. Andrew Jackson Moyer successfully developed the technique necessary to mass produce penicillin in time to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Moyer was born on November 30, 1899, in Star City, Indiana. He spent his early years living in both Star City and Logansport, before joining the U.S. Army’s Student Training Corps at Wabash College in 1918. Moyer graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1922. He went on to earn a master’s degree from North Dakota Agricultural College and a PhD in plant pathology from the University of Maryland.

After graduating with his PhD, Moyer got a job as a mycologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He later transferred to the USDA Northern Regional Research Laboratory in Peoria, Ill. It was there that Moyer would become famous for his research on penicillin.

As rumblings of war began across Europe, scientists at Oxford University in England were desperately searching for a reliable treatment for battlefield infections. In the course of their research, they stumbled upon the work of Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming. His discovery of penicillin in 1928 showed a great deal of potential.

Lacking funds to complete further research themselves, British scientists Howard Florey and Norman Heatley embarked on a journey to bring the penicillin mold to America. They teamed up with the USDA to develop an effective method of large-scale penicillin production. Moyer was assigned to the team.

Moyer and his team made several discoveries that ultimately led to the development of a marketable penicillin product. First, Moyer discovered that corn steep liquor provided a perfect growing medium for penicillin. A byproduct of cornstarch, corn steep liquor was readily available and inexpensive to obtain.

Moyer also discovered that adding milk sugar to the growth medium further increased penicillin yields. These breakthroughs, combined with the discovery of a better strain of penicillin, resulted in the successful scale-up of drug production.  

Soon, American manufacturers were producing large quantities of the drug. By D-Day in June 1944, battlefield hospitals had ample supplies of the valuable drug. The ability to mass produce penicillin for treatment of soldiers’ wounds was a huge boon to the Allied forces.

Moyer retired in 1957 and died two years later on February 17, 1959. In 1987, he was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Moyer was the first government researcher to be inducted.

Today, Moyer is remembered for his contributions to the development of penicillin. Thanks to Moyer, manufacturers have been producing antibiotics like penicillin at affordable prices since the mid-1940’s. His research has saved millions of military and civilian lives.