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Object Timeline

  • We acquired this object.

-0001

1940

  • Work on this object began.

1941

  • Work on this object ended.

2014

2015

2019

  • You found it!

Penicillin Culture Vessel (England), 1940–1941

This is a Penicillin culture vessel.

This object is not part of the Cooper Hewitt's permanent collection. It was able to spend time at the museum on loan from National Museum of American History as part of Tools: Extending Our Reach.

It is dated 1940–1941. Its medium is ceramic, slip cast (glazed interior, unglazed exterior).

In 1928, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered a bacteria-killing mold growing on a Staphylococcus culture. However, producing enough of the purified mold, called penicillin, to allow testing on humans posed a challenge: It grew only on the surface of a nutrient broth and yielded minuscule amounts. In 1940, Dr. Norman G. Heatley of Oxford University designed a shallow, rectangular culture vessel inspired by hospital bedpans then used for culturing to create enough penicillin for testing. Transparent glass, the preferred material, was needed in wartime, so a slip-cast ceramic model was produced instead. The flat-sided containers could be efficiently stacked upright for sterilization and horizontally during incubation. The unglazed exterior prevented slippage during handling and reduced costs. By 1941, the culture vessel had helped produce enough penicillin to test on humans. Penicillin became one of the first drugs to successfully treat bacterial infections, saving thousands of lives during World War II.

It is credited Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Cat. M-06669.

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Its dimensions are

H x W x D: 9 × 23.3 × 34.5 cm (3 9/16 × 9 3/16 × 13 9/16 in.)

This object was previously on display as a part of the exhibition Tools: Extending Our Reach.

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<ref name=CH>{{cite web |url=https://www-6.collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/35457197/ |title=Penicillin Culture Vessel (England), 1940–1941 |author=Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum |accessdate=24 June 2019 |publisher=Smithsonian Institution}}</ref>