Abstract: Think before You Ban: American Reactions to the Rise of an Independent Antibiotic Industry in Eastern Europe in the Late 1940s

Slawomir Lotysz


In early 1946 the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), established to aid war-worn countries, offered five complete penicillin plants to be built in Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia. Thanks to the UNRRA fellowships, local specialists were trained in Canada. Although most of the equipment reached the target countries, they were not able to launch production of antibiotics, because the U.S. government cut the delivery of some of the key devices. The affected countries launched a diplomatic campaign at the World Health Organization (WHO) forum, demanding that the UNRRA relief program should be continued in spite of the embargo. When these efforts failed, Poland with other countries withdrew from the WHO in 1950, protesting against its inability to solve the tangle. In spite of obstacles the East Europeans pursued efforts to put the factories into operation. Each country approached the problem in its own way. Eventually the restrictions had the opposite effect than the one imagined by the Washington "hawks." In spite of the ban, Poland's first penicillin plant was ready in summer 1949, and within a few years it became an important producer of that medicine, competing in the Western markets.