The Mushroom Man

A Chester County fungus expert helped pioneer production of a drug that saved thousands.

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In June 1944, Allied forces hit the Normandy beaches with about 7,000 ships, 148,000 vehicles and 570,000 tons of supplies—plus something that, for the thousands wounded there and elsewhere, proved more important than all the hardware: penicillin, thanks in part to G. Raymond Rettew, a mushroom man from West Chester.

Dr. Desmond Biel and G. Raymond Rettew (right) examine penicillin cultures.Rettew, a local boy who made his name in the 1930s breeding mushroom spawn, turned to penicillin after Pearl Harbor. The first true antibiotic, penicillin had been known of for years, but only as a laboratory curiosity. Rettew pioneered mass-production methods that made penicillin something every medic could carry onto the battlefield.

“The penicillin [Rettew] produced, while incidentally saving many lives, served as the basis for its effective use during Gen. Eisenhower’s successful invasion of Europe,” said Robert D. Coghill, the federal scientist who evaluated Rettew’s original proposal.

Published estimates of the lives saved by penicillin range from 12 to 15 percent of all Allied casualties in World War II. Based on the official count of 684,000 U.S. wounded, more than 100,000 Americans lived who otherwise would’ve died—3,000 on D-Day alone.

Uncle Sam even used penicillin in war propaganda. Posters declaring “He’ll live to come home—because of penicillin!” attempted to dampen fears of combat and possible draft resistance.

Born on East Washington Street, Rettew was the son of a lawyer who also served eight years as a West Chester postmaster. His father got him summer jobs at the post office. Rettew also worked at a slaughterhouse, Strode Pork Products, where he became friendly with owner Joseph W. Strode.

Swarthmore College was the preferred school in Rettew’s family and social circle. But his love was chemistry, in which Swarthmore was not particularly strong. So, after high school, Rettew attended the University of Delaware, where, he later wrote, “in one year, I had as many chemistry courses as would have taken two years at Swarthmore.”

Rettew then transferred to Swarthmore, where he worked as an unpaid assistant in the chemistry department. He synthesized 20 new organic compounds, later tested on animals at Johns Hopkins University.

“It was time that would have been better used in studying German, which was being badly neglected,” he wrote.

Rettew so neglected German, in fact, that he flunked it twice. As a result, he never graduated. In 1925, Rettew was engaged, and retaking German would’ve required the couple to postpone their wedding. German and a degree seemed less important, and the couple married
on schedule.

Rettew’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer, so he tried to oblige his family by working in his office. Unbeknownst to Rettew, Swarthmore’s chemistry department had recommended him for a position at Hires, the root beer manufacturer. The call came just a month after joining his father.

“One of the best things I did for Hires was the introduction of pH control,” wrote Rettew. “This was new, and much was not in the textbooks. It was necessary to build a pH meter and make my own set of conversion tables.”

Rettew’s father-in-law was in the mushroom business, so family conversation often centered on its problems—especially the scarcity of quality spawn (the equivalent of seed). Poor mushroom spawn meant poor crops. The business needed scientific help. Rettew discussed the issues with his old friend Strode as both rode the train on their daily commute. “One morning, Strode very simply declared, ‘When you are ready to go into the mushroom spawn business, let me know,’” said Rettew. “That very evening, I went to see him, and for many years to come, we were partners.”

With Strode’s money and Rettew’s knowledge, they incorporated as the Chester County Mushroom Laboratories and built a small plant on East Rosedale Avenue. There, CCML pioneered the sterile cultivation of mushroom spawn. In three years, the company was the largest spawn supplier in the United States. Rettew left Hires in June of 1929, and the Great Depression started a few months later. “Theoretically, this was a risky time to start a new business,” Rettew wrote. “However, the operation was successful from the start.”

The 1930s were busy. Rettew consulted with Clarence Birdseye on the freezing of mushrooms when the inventor of frozen food began processing vegetables. He published The Manual of Mushroom Culture, which served as the industry bible in that era. Rettew also patented a new flat-sided, widemouthed jar in which to grow mushroom spawn. Producers had previously used glass milk bottles, but many spawn were destroyed while being removed through the narrow mouths. CCML also spun off a separate company, Concord Foods, which canned mushrooms.

Rettew also traveled widely, consulting with farmers who bought his spawn. “It was necessary to make a circle around the United States and Canada once a year, and some places more often,” he wrote. “These were indeed the ‘bread and butter’ years.”

With war approaching, the farsighted Rettew led an industry effort to scientifically document the food value of mushrooms. Being deemed a “nonessential” food, he knew, could lead to wartime rationing that would effectively force many growers out of the business. Fortunately, a report showed mushrooms had “high vitamin content and good protein value without fattening carbohydrates.” As a result, they were later rated “essential.” The Mushroom Growers’ Association gave Rettew a scroll and $1,000 for this work.

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