Jasper H. Kane
(1903–2004)


Headshot

NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
(TANDON ’28, ’95)

Biochemist

“My grandfather was a go-getter from the beginning,” says Kurt Schrader, the U.S. Representative for Oregon's 5th congressional district and grandson of the late Jasper H. Kane. A famed biochemist, Kane spearheaded the development of a revolutionary method for producing penicillin on an industrial scale. The process—deep-tank fermentation—was a game changer for Allied powers during World War II, a period when hundreds of soldiers died daily from infected wounds. “In those days, it was disease that took the most lives in wartime,” says Rep. Schrader. “Not the enemy.”

The son of “hardscrabble” Irish immigrants, Kane was only 16 years old when he joined Charles Pfizer & Company’s Brooklyn plant in 1919. Working as an assistant to food chemist James Currie, he notched the first of many career feats by helping Currie successfully pioneer the mass production of citric acid. He also found time to study evenings at Polytechnic Institute (now NYU Tandon), where he graduated in 1928. “He just had a natural aptitude for chemistry and biochemistry,” says Rep. Schrader. Currie and Kane’s discovery positioned Pfizer as the undisputed leader in producing citric acid using deep tanks and set the stage for Kane’s breakthrough development several decades later.

It was Kane, then Pfizer’s director of research, who proposed implementing a new deep-tank fermentation method to commercially manufacture penicillin. But he initially faced skepticism and resistance. “The good news was that he’d done his research...and he knew it was going to work,” says Rep. Schrader. Kane’s big idea paid off, leading to the bulk production of Alexander Fleming’s “wonder drug” and other lifesaving antibiotics. By 1944, Pfizer was the leading producer of penicillin by fermentation, supplying 90 percent of the penicillin that helped treat over 150,000 soldiers wounded in the D-Day landings.

By the time Kane retired from Pfizer in 1953, “he’d put the pharmaceutical industry on the map as the premiere sector to save people’s lives.” Though he passed away in 2004, Kane’s career-defining achievements continue to gain recognition. In 2008, the American Chemical Society designated Pfizer’s development of deep-tank fermentation as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. And in 2010, the Institution of Chemical Engineers hailed Kane as one of Pfizer’s “penicillin pioneers.” Kane leaves behind a legacy that helped transform an entire sector and is revered by those who knew and loved him. “He enjoyed the work, loved his family, and was always super kind,” says Rep. Schrader. “He was a great man.”