Pfizer Portage site holds decades of history in global health

Michigan

PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — The Pfizer site in Portage that’s manufacturing a COVID-19 vaccine has decades of history advancing global public health.

Lynn Houghton, a region history curator with Western Michigan University, looks after 134 years of the Upjohn Pill and Granule Company’s history. The business was acquired by Pfizer in 2003 through a merger with Pharmacia.

The historic items are housed in the Zhang Legacy Collections. They showcase a long list of accomplishments including the construction of the manufacturing complex Building 41, which consists of 1,500 acres of property on Portage Road.

This building in an expanded and upgraded form is currently producing a COVID-19 vaccine that could be the first to receive FDA approval.

“The construction began around 1946 and it ended around 1951,” Houghton said.

The Upjohn Company was founded in 1886 with its headquarters and a manufacturing operation in downtown Kalamazoo until the decision was made to move to the site on Portage Road.

The additional space allowed the company to switch from a vertically designed layout of its building to a horizontal design that facilitated greater expansion.

“It was quite an undertaking and the way that they had designed it,” Houghton said. “Raw material was going to come in on one end and the final product was going to come out at the other.”

A sketch of the Upjohn Company in Portage, which was acquired by Pfizer in 2003. (Courtesy Western Michigan University’s Zhang Legacy Collections Center)

The size of the building also allowed for plenty of space to grow the company’s global reach.

“I read a statistic one time they said that there were enough bricks in that building to build over 600 houses. If you can imagine the size of that,” Houghton said.

The company rose to the challenge before and the site could eclipse some of those advancements with helping bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This experience with the vaccine when you look at the history of the Upjohn Company, in a little way reminds me of what happened in World War II when a lot of the pharmaceutical companies needed to find a faster way, a quicker way, a better way to produce antibiotics for the war effort,” Houghton said.

A building people have driven by for decades without giving it a second look is now on the global stage.

The Upjohn Company in Portage, which was acquired by Pfizer in 2003. (Courtesy: Upjohn.net)

“It gives you a little sense of pride a sense of astonishment with the speed at how things are going,” Houghton said.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine could receive FDA approval as soon as the middle of this month.

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