A development pioneered in Peoria, Illinois has saved millions of lives worldwide over the last 75 years: the mass production of penicillin. Fewer may have heard a different story: that the discoverer of said cantaloupe was not an employee, but an unknown Peoria housewife who dropped off the cantaloupe at the lab, never knowing her contribution to the development of penicillin.
What most probably do not know is that the exact origin of this strain—the ancestor to the penicillin still in use today—is somewhat controversial.
In fact, many aspects about it are still a mystery. I assumed choosing her as a subject was unimpeachable, given the pride Peoria has placed in its contribution to science through the work done at the NRRL during the war years. In my position at the Peoria Public Library, it is essential that I provide as much factual information to the public as possible.
To that end, I was not satisfied with what I gleaned about Mary Hunt from a few decades-old newspaper articles. My next source was a scrapbook compiled by library staff about the NRRL. It contains many clippings about the work on penicillin in Peoria, but they were inconclusive as to who actually found the cantaloupe. My next step was to contact current NCAUR employees who are familiar with the history of the lab and penicillin production.
Informed that I wanted to write about Mary Hunt, they showed some concern because even in scientific circles and within the USDA itself, the information about her role is murky. Mary herself never doubted the role she had played and gave several interviews over the years in which she discussed finding the cantaloupe, even describing that moment in detail. For example, one supervisor, Robert D. In a interview he is quoted as saying:. The merchants downtown named her… When you think of the tremendous value penicillin has had, there are much more important things to write about than Moldy Mary.
These contradictions inspired me to find out more about this so-called messenger girl. In the process, I pieced together a loose biographical sketch. She immigrated to the United States in with her Eastern European family and grew up in the Chicago area. I could not find records between and that were a match for a Marya Hnatusko or a Mary Hunt.
During those years, Mary said in interviews that she attended the University of Chicago and University of Illinois Medical School, where she studied bacteriology and public health. She also shared in news articles that she had training in the field of nursing and had worked at St. Hunt for collecting samples of moldy materials and for assisting in the isolation and preliminary testing of many strains. This also begged the question: How common was it for a woman to be working as a bacteriologist in the s?
That answer is provided in a U. According to that document, approximately women were employed as bacteriologists in government work before the war, with no substantial increase until the later war years.
The Outlook for Women publication attributes the choice of women for positions as bacteriologists to their special talents, patience in repetitive work, attention to detail and extensive data-keeping abilities. A Source of Pride Before writing this article, I spent many hours collecting information from various sources about the development of penicillin and Mary Hunt. But there is no question that Mary was respected for her work, based upon the acknowledgment from which affirms that she: 1 had the ability to select specimens containing the strains of mold the NRRL sought to investigate further, and 2 that she was skilled at isolating the strains in the laboratory.
He reluctantly agreed—not wanting her or others to think that he kept a lot of spoiled product.
But he knew that Mary was involved in war work, so he did not ask too many questions. At some point, Mary told him it would no longer be necessary to save moldy fruit and vegetables for her, but did not explain why.
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One asment was to conduct an interview with someone who had participated in the war effort. I chose my uncle, who had served in Africa in the U. Army Air Forces in a maintenance role. I almost apologetically explained my choice to my professor, thinking I should have interviewed someone who had accomplished something more ificant. He explained that there were no inificant roles—that every participant was needed to further the end objective, the successful conclusion of the war for America.
Likewise, Mary Hunt and her female peers all added ificantly to the war work being accomplished at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory.
We may never know the specifics of her work or of the other technicians behind the scenes, but there is no question that all of them were indispensible in the development of the mass production of penicillin. Of course, that information could have been omitted.
I could find nothing showing that she did or did not have the degrees she claimed. In fact, he says that she saved his life when no one else could provide a cure for hood illness.
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He also said she had many loyal patients and that she established an office in Sedona after her move there. Regardless of the mysteries still surrounding Mary and her famous moldy melon, I do believe she was much more than a simple messenger girl. My parents were close social friends with the Rapers back the played bridgehad dinners together, etc. I was about years then and I called them by their first names Ken and Louise. It was my understand from over hearing their conversations that it was Louise who knew Ken RAPER, MS, PhD,was doing he penicillin research on a variety of molds, at the Northern Regional lab in Peoria, searching to find that mole with a higher yield of Penicillin they were getting there at that time.
As our story goes, his wife Louise was the woman doing the shopping and picked up a cantaloupe which had some mold on it and she made the decision to purchase that and present it to Ken which she did and from that mold he extracted a hereto for unusually high yield of Penicillin and that strain became the standard for penicillin in the current use, and was used in WWii wounds and is credited for saving many military lives.
My sister and I heard that report many time from our parents back in this year growing up.
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