Kenneth White – Ripley pharmacist who pioneered civilian use penicillin
Ripley Pharmacy on Ripley High Street – now Cellar Wines – is where the wonder drug penicillin was first made available to the public. The dispensary has had just four owners in 102 years.
In 1943, the former 15th century coaching inn, founded in 1897 by Henry Allenby, was bought by thirty-year-old chemist, Kenneth White. He had qualified at Brighton Technical College and was a man of great determination and fortitude. In a quiet back room of the now Grade II listed building, with its old-fashioned façade, timber frames and picturesque appearance, the ambitious young chemist defied the establishment to bring a medical revolution into the lives of ordinary people.
Penicillin – the elusive wonder drug
Penicillin had been discovered in 1928 and the production of penicillin became a wartime priority. Early media reports comprised fairly straightforward accounts of penicillin’s activity, but as public awareness grew, media accounts stressed the fact that all output from pharmaceutical factories was to be reserved exclusively for the Armed Forces, saving countless lives of wounded soldiers. However, none was made available to the civilian population.
In 1942, The Times wrote an article about penicillin, reporting on the antibiotic’s prodigious potency against harmful bacteria. Doctors and pharmacists alike began to increasingly share the frustration felt by the public over penicillin’s general unavailability.
How did White achieve the near impossible?
For months, White had wondered what he could do to help the war effort. He followed the discovery of penicillin with interest and, not satisfied with the dictum ” no penicillin for civilians,” he resolved to do something about it. White’s additional motivation to manufacture the drug came after he made a bet with a local doctor.
To undertake the manufacture of penicillin, White needed a suitable strain of ‘penicillium notatum’. He evidently did acquire one but how and when he did so remains unknown. In March 1944, White wrote to the Ministry of Supply requesting a ‘pure culture’. In July of the same year, he wrote to the National Collection of Type Cultures with a similar appeal: both requests were rejected. Apparently, an embargo had been placed on this particular culture to prevent scientists from other countries getting hold of it.
Apparently, White told a newspaper reporter that he had visited a large penicillin manufacturing facility and in all likelihood, he was secretly given a culture during his visit. In April 1944, using culture flasks, an ice-cream refrigerator borrowed from a local tea shop (after food rationing had rendered it redundant) and a great deal of resourcefulness and help from locals, White became the first civilian chemist to manufacture penicillin filtrate.
An article in The Daily Mirror, 3rd June 1944, reported:
Youthful, energetic, Mr. White leads a “double existence.” In the day time he supplied the villagers with medicine; far into the night he worked in the dispensary at the rear of his shop to supply hospitals and doctors with free penicillin.
The early penicillin was not suitable for injecting so White made it into a cream. Perfecting his technique, by September 1946, White had acquired a special license to dispense penicillin injections. Supplies were soon available for local doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, veterinary surgeons and pharmacists.
White’s friend, Jack Ellard, who owned the pharmacy from 1951 to 1994, recalled,
“Fleming discovered penicillin in 1938, and we all knew about it, but at first it was only made available to the military. But Ken was a real go-getter and it only took a few months to make his own.”
White’s reputation spread
Inevitably, the appearance of stories in the press about White’s success with penicillin led to pleas from members of the public, desperate to obtain the powerful antibiotic for friends and relatives. His efforts are believed to have led to the treatment of a few score of patients and all the evidence suggests that he bore all the associated production costs himself and made no charge for the penicillin.
White’s humanitarian spirit and Herculean efforts were also greeted with admiration by a number of drug houses. In recognition of his achievements, Glaxo Laboratories supplied him with growth medium in tablet form for cultivating penicillin. In February 1945, the Ministry of Supply sent White a coveted culture, a gesture tantamount to their bestowing official approval on his endeavours.
He was continually attempting to improve his production facilities. White had attempted, without success, to obtain a licence under the terms of the Therapeutic Substances Act, 1925 to conduct research into penicillin. This was withheld from him during the war and finally granted in July 1948.
Why Kenneth White deserves a blue plaque
Working almost completely independently and unaffiliated to either a hospital, academic institution or research organisation, White succeeded in producing penicillin for the general public. Learning of the existence of a compound that had the power to alleviate human suffering, he determined to do what he could, with the limited resources available to him, to provide a much-needed antibiotic to as many people as possible.
White continued making and supplying penicillin after the war had ended. In 1951, White sold The Pharmacy and emigrated to Australia. Jack Ellard took on the house and business, which he ran himself until selling it in 1994. The Pharmacy building was purchased by Cellar Wines in 2015, an independent luxury brand provider, sourcing the best products locally and from around the world. They offer artisan spirits, boutique wines, a gourmet delicatessen and fantastic events.