Saturday, April 20, 2013


                          WE CALLED  HER  ‘MOLDY MARY’

                                        NORMAN  V.  KELLY

Calling Mary Hunt Moldy Mary does not sound very complimentary to me, but that is what Peorians lovingly called our local hero.  Mary was a Bacteriologist working here at our Ag Lab, officially referred to as the United States Department Of Agriculture before and during the crucial years when Penicillin was being developed as a mass product.  When I first heard of it as a ten-year old kid in 1942, I understood that this new miracle medicine was Peoria’s own.   Of course, that was not true, but Chamber of Commerce people like to brag about their city, and so folks here in Peoria just claimed it as our own. The real beginning of Penicillin started by accident way back in 1928 in England by Doctor Alexander Fleming, but hey, you can look him up on your own computer. 

Peoria, Illinois had a very active agriculture department here and since it was located in the center of a vast agriculture area, we were picked by the powers that be to research this Air Bourne Bacteria referred to as Penicillium Notatem by Dr. Fleming.   The great man actually visited the lab here and believe me it was a newsworthy subject way back then.  Even then it was talked about as a ‘miracle drug,’ and with WW11 just beginning to produce American casualties in large numbers, it was a priority item within the medical community and The United States Government. Folks in Peoria were proud to hear that such an important project was being carried on right here in patriotic Peoria, Illinois.

That is where Mary Hunt came into the picture.  Not only was she part of the research team she used her shopping skills to find the perfect piece of produce to further the research.  She was a well-known, somewhat mysterious person as she went in and out of stores all over Peoria, testing fruit, vegetables and meats.  Now the folks that encountered her had no idea what she was really doing, except shopping.  One local lady told reporters, “I just thought she was just a frugal, careful housewife, picking the best possible foods for her family.  I guess I was wrong about that.”    The managers were often asked about ‘moldy fruit’ which they were reluctant to disclose, but Mary’s gentle persuasion won them over.  Finally, she picked up what she considered the perfect cantaloupe, noting a slight mold forming on the navel.  Mary was quoted as saying that when she picked up this particular cantaloupe she knew she had hit pay dirt.  “I remember when I got that Texas cantaloupe it proved to be ‘The One!”     The lab labeled the cantaloupe ‘Mold Number 72.”   That was when folks started calling the shopper ‘Moldy Mary.’   Mary had the honor of cutting off the mold and preparing it for the research.  “After I cut off the mold I passed the cantaloupe around to my fellow workers to eat.  They thought it tasted very sweet, and they loved the golden color.”

Her boss, Doctor Andrew Moyer then put the mold into a vat of corn steep liquor, which was part of a by product of corn starch that was normally just dumped into the Illinois River.  Later Doctor Coghill announced that this was the turning point in all of the research.  That concoction “Increased the yield 20 times and no other lab in the United States used this product.” And so, as folks like to say, “The rest is history,” and Peoria and its famous lab played a major role in getting this important bacteria killer out to our troops by mass producing the life saving drug.

From Peoria the news spread around the world and labs began to mass produce Penicillin. Fifteen large pharmaceutical companies got into the act producing an amazing 14,000 pounds of penicillin for battlefield wounds and infections. Later on the now famous product was in the hands of civilian hospitals around the world, saving countless lives. The production became so efficient that Penicillin became available in 2,100 hospitals all over the United States as well as selected sites in Europe. If you would like to learn more or check out the plaques on the walls of our lab at 1815 N. University they will welcome you. 

As for Mary Hunt, she never quite got the honors and awards that went to some of the doctors at the lab, but she did get herself a husband. Miss Mary Hunt became Mrs. Steven and as of 1980, was said to be in Chicago or Sedona, Arizona.  I doubt it, but I hope she is alive and well and still remembers our little old town of Peoria, Illinois.  

Editor’s Note:  Norm is a local author and historian and welcomes your comments.                                                                                      


  1. Do you have any resources for finding out more about her?

  2. I found it when I was looking for a different sort of information but I am very interested in the article, It is nice to read such kind of good posts I like your work keep it up!

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