Our museum is temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

Petri dish

Petri dish

<< >>
Usage conditions apply
Description (Brief)
These Petri dishes and sterilizer box were used by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northern Regional Research Laboratory, in Peoria, Illinois, for penicillin research during World War II. The laboratory investigated many different samples of penicillium mold in order to discover the most productive strains and methods for large-scale manufacture of penicillin.
Lab technicians and scientists screened thousands of mold samples collected from around the world using petri dishes such as these. Ultimately a strain isolated from a moldy cantaloupe from a Peoria market proved to give the best penicillin yield when grown in submerged vats of corn steep liquor—the growth medium developed at the Peoria lab. The work in Peoria made commercial production possible and helped ensure that penicillin was available to meet all the needs of the Armed Forces by D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Petri dishes are named after German physician Julius Petri. In the late 1880s Petri developed a set of nesting glass plates that created an ideal environment for growing microorganisms. The deep, flat dish filled with a nutrient-rich gelatin provided a place for growth. The lid protected the sample from contamination and facilitated its viewing under a microscope.
The dishes are made from Pyrex. Pyrex has its origins in the early 1910s, when American glass company Corning Glass Works began looking for new products to feature its borosilicate glass, Nonex. At the suggestion of Bessie Littleton, a Corning scientist’s wife, the company began investigating Nonex for bakeware. After removing lead from Nonex to make the glass safe for cooking, they named the new formula “Pyrex”—“Py” for the pie plate, the first Pyrex product. In 1916 Pyrex found another market in the laboratory. It quickly became a favorite brand in the scientific community for its strength against chemicals, thermal shock, and mechanical stress.
Dyer, Davis. The Generations of Corning: The Life and Times of a Global Corporation. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Jensen, William B. “The Origin of Pyrex.” Journal of Chemical Education 83, no. 5 (2006): 692. doi:10.1021/ed083p692.
Karvellas, Anna. “Dispatch from Peoria: Mass Production of Penicillin (1940s),” in Arthur P. Molella, and Anna Karvellas. Places of Invention: A Companion to the Exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, 2015. 136–50.
Kraissl, F. “A History of the Chemical Apparatus Industry.” Journal of Chemical Education 10, no. 9 (1933): 519. doi:10.1021/ed010p519.
Lax, Eric. The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle. New York: H. Holt, 2004.
Currently not on view
Object Name
sterilizing box with petri dishes
date made
Corning Incorporated
Physical Description
glass (petri dishes material)
copper (sterilizer box material)
overall: 23.2 cm x 22.5 cm x 21.5 cm; 9 1/8 in x 8 27/32 in x 8 15/32 in
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
USDA, Northern Regional Research Laboratory, Peoria, IL
Science & Scientific Instruments
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Medicine
Science & Mathematics
Health & Medicine
Science Under Glass
Data Source
National Museum of American History
Nominate this object for photography.   

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.


Add a comment about this object