Penicillin as a Tool of Power in the Early Post-War Central and Eastern Europe

Prof. Dr. Sławomir Łotysz, Institute for the History of Science, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland

Penicillin has been developed jointly by the British and American scientists during the Second World War. The first antibiotic immediately gained notoriety as a “wonder drug” due to its remarkable antibacterial potency. It has been used as a political weapon in both transnational and domestic settings since its inception.

Since penicillin was especially useful in military medicine, the UK and the USA, who held the technology for producing penicillin, attempted to keep their invention a secret from hostile nations – Germany and Japan during the Second World War, and the Soviet Union and its satellites during the Cold War. However, before the latter fully broke out, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration gave each of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Belarus, and Ukraine a complete penicillin plant, allowing the transfer of this closely-guarded secret to take place behind the Iron Curtain. In this analysis, I will highlight the major aspects of this initiative and concentrate on its political significance.

Penicillin’s initially limited availability made it a convenient tool of power that was used against civilian populations by various officials to control civilian populations at home. This was the case with American occupation forces in Germany restricting German citizens’ access to penicillin due to political considerations, as well as communist governments in Poland and Yugoslavia, which provided their officials with higher quality foreign antibiotics while forcing everyone else to use domestic antibiotics of lower quality.

The paper is based on my book Welfare Factory. Penicillin behind the Iron Curtain, 1945-1954 (in Polish: Fabryka z darów. Penicylina za żelazną kurtyną 1945-1954. Warsaw: Aspra JR, 2020). The book’s Table of Contents can be found here and a review published in Open Access in HoST – Journal of History of Science and Technology is available here The research was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland, under grant number 2014/13/B/HS3/04951.

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