He was a marble shooting champion, a Battle Creek’s Yo-Yo champ, and award-winning model airplane builder, but John Sheehan went on to be noted for a bit more than that.  You may not have heard of him, but his work as a chemist may have already saved your life.

Sheehan was a Battle Creek St. Philip student and attended Battle Creek College and the University of Michigan.

Matt Davis posted on a local social media page about it.

“Dr. Sheehan's research on synthetic penicillin paved the way for the development of customized forms of the lifesaving antibiotic that target specific bacteria. Over the four decades he worked at M.I.T., Sheehan came to hold over 30 patents, including the invention of ampicillin, a commonly used semi-synthetic penicillin that is taken orally rather than by injection. His research covered not only penicillin, but also peptides, other antibiotics, alkaloids, and steroids.”

The Sheehan family lived at 94 Elizabeth Street.   John’s father Leo was a writer and later managing editor for the Battle Creek Enquirer.  Young John was fascinated with science, especially fireworks and explosives, and later helped develop the production of RDX, an explosive that is said to have given the Allies a huge advantage during WWII.

Sheehan Residence, 1940-Willard Library Photo

As a youngster, Sheehan battled pneumonia and mastoiditis for a year, which led to an interest in antibiotics.   He later wrote in his book, “The Enchanted Ring: The Untold Story of Penicillin” that “If my doctors had had a course of treatment as effective as that made possible by penicillin, I would probably not have lost that year."

Enchanted Ring-Amazon

Thirty years after Alexander Fleming made the first Penicillin, it was still being made from mold.  Scientists tried to synthesize it and had given up.   John Sheehan solved the problem in 1957 at MIT, and not only synthesized penicillin, but the discovery led to tailor-made variants of the drug that could be specifically targeted at bacteria. It also allowed for the drug to be taken orally, rather than by injection.

John Clark Sheehan died in 1992 in Key Biscayne, Florida at the age of 76.   It is hard to imagine how many lives were saved by his discoveries.

So, if you thought chemistry class was a waste of time, think again!

If you like the photo of kids playing marbles, you can buy it on Ebay here. 

Battle Creek College-Willard Library
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