Now more than ever individuals and industries are banding together to fight the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which is devastating both lives and livelihoods. During these unique times, appreciation has never been more widespread for those working in medicine, from healthcare professionals to scientists. But one sector cannot bear the brunt of this outbreak alone; calls for support from engineers, manufacturers and designers have been plentiful as countries scramble to scale-up the supply of medical equipment to support patient care and enough PPE to ensure the safety of frontline staff.

This is not the first time engineers have lent a crucial hand to facilitate mass production in times of uncertainty. In the 1940s, as World War ll swept across nations, chemical engineer Dr. Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau brought about a technology that scaled-up penicillin production at an unprecedented speed, saving the lives of millions of people.

After Dr. Alexander Fleming’s initial discovery of penicillin in 1928, further development of the drug was hindered due to slow production. As a result, it wasn’t until 1942 that penicillin was first used to treat a patient, however due to the laboured production process, this one instance used nearly half of the whole global supply and with a war being fought, there was a dire need to scale-up, and fast.

Dr. Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau, a highly respected chemical engineer and the first woman to become a member of the American Institution of Chemical Engineers, saw an opportunity to boost production by using a byproduct from the wet corn-milling process (corn steep liquor), and the commercial process of deep tank fermentation, previously developed to produce gluconic acid. By seeding the corn steep liquor with the penicillin fungus P.chrysogenum, Hutchinson could grow large amounts of the mould, extract it and scale up production. This process moved away from the previous labour and time intensive method that yielded little output, to mass production. By 1944 there were 2.3 million units available, just in time to aid injured troops from infection during the Normandy invasion in June of that year. One year later, production had been increased to 650 million units of penicillin every month, saving millions of lives and proving that concerted efforts across disciplines can have a tremendous impact.

Today alliances are taking place around the world to facilitate the ongoing fight against coronavirus, arguably none more essential than that between medicine and engineering; fundamental in the race to scale up fast, helping to save lives and protect those who are on the frontline.

Read our coronavirus response and how we are guiding engineers when using their expertise in the effort against the pandemic.