With Elizabeth Lee Hazen, Brown (1898-1980) developed the first effective antibiotic against fungal disease in humans—the most important biomedical breakthrough since the discovery of penicillin two decades earlier.
Rachel Fuller Brown, with her associate Elizabeth Hazen, developed the first effective antibiotic against fungal disease in humans—the most important biomedical breakthrough since the discovery of penicillin two decades earlier. The antibiotic, called nystatin, has cured sufferers of life-threatening fungal infections, vaginal yeast infections, and athlete's foot. Nystatin earned more than $13 million in royalties during Brown's lifetime, which she and Hazen dedicated to scientific research.
Brown was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on November 23, 1898, to Annie Fuller and George Hamilton Brown. Her father, a real estate and insurance agent, moved the family to Webster Groves, Missouri, where she attended grammar school. In 1912, her father left the family. Brown and her younger brother returned to Springfield with their mother, who worked to support them. When Brown graduated from high school, a wealthy friend of the family financed her attendance at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
At Mount Holyoke, Brown was initially a history major, but she discovered chemistry when fulfilling a science requirement. She decided to double-major in history and chemistry, earning her A.B. degree in 1920. She subsequently went to the University of Chicago to complete her M.A. in organic chemistry. For three years, she taught chemistry and physics at the Francis Shimer School near Chicago. With her savings, she returned to the University to complete her Ph.D. in organic chemistry, with a minor in bacteriology. She submitted her thesis in 1926, but there was a delay in arranging her oral examinations. As her funds ran low, Brown took a job as an assistant chemist at the Division of Laboratories and Research of the New York State Department of Health in Albany, New York. Seven years later, when she returned to Chicago for a scientific meeting, Brown arranged to take her oral examinations and was awarded her Ph.D.
Brown's early work at the Department of Health focused on identifying the types of bacteria that caused pneumonia, and in this capacity she helped to develop a pneumonia vaccine still in use today. In 1948, she embarked on the project with Hazen, a leading authority on fungus, that would bring them their greatest acclaim: the discovery of an antibiotic to fight fungal infections. Penicillin had been discovered in 1928, and in the ensuing years antibiotics were increasingly used to fight bacterial illnesses. One side effect, however, was the rapid growth of fungus that could lead to sore mouths or upset stomachs. Other fungal diseases without cures included infections attacking the central nervous system, athlete's foot, and ring-worm. Microorganisms called actinomycetes that lived in soil were known to produce antibiotics. Although some killed fungus, they also proved fatal to test mice. Hazen ultimately narrowed the search down to a microorganism taken from soil near a barn on a friend's dairy farm in Virginia, later named streptomyces norsei. Brown's chemical analyses revealed that the microorganism produced two antifungal substances, one of which proved too toxic with test animals to pursue for human medical use. The other, however, seemed to have promise; it wasn't toxic to test animals and attacked both a fungus that invaded the lungs and central nervous system and candidiasis, an infection of the mouth, lungs, and vagina.
Brown purified this second antibiotic into small white crystals, and in 1950 Brown and Hazen announced at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences that they had found a new antifungal agent. They patented it through the nonprofit Research Corporation, naming it "nystatin" in honor of the New York State Division of Laboratories and Research. The license for the patent was issued to E. R. Squibb and Sons, which developed a safe and effective method of mass production. The product—called Mycostatin—became available in tablet form in 1954 to patients suffering from candidiasis. Nystatin has also proved valuable in agricultural and livestock applications, and has even been used to restore valuable works of art.
In 1951, the Department of Health laboratories promoted Brown to associate biochemist. Brown and Hazen, in continuing their research, discovered two additional antibiotics, phalamycin and capacidin. Brown and Hazen were awarded the 1955 Squibb Award in Chemotherapy. Brown won the Distinguished Service Award of the New York State Department of Health when she retired in 1968, and the Rhoda Benham Award of the Medical Mycological Society of the Americas in 1972. In 1975, Brown and Hazen became the first women to receive the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists. In a statement publised in the Chemist the month of her death, Brown hoped for a future of "equal opportunities and accomplishments for all scientists regardless of sex."
On retirement, Brown maintained an active community life, and became the first female vestry member of her Episcopalian church. By her death on January 14, 1980, she had paid back the wealthy woman who had made it possible for her to attend college. Using the royalties from nystatin, more importantly, she helped designate new funds for scientific research and scholarships.
Baldwin, Richard S., The Fungus Fighters: Two Women Scientists and Their Discovery, Cornell University Press, 1981.
Vare, Ethlie Ann and Greg Ptacek, Mothers of Invention, Morrow, 1988, pp. 124-126.
Yost, Edna, Women of Modern Science, Greenwood, 1959, pp. 64-79.
New York Times, June 29, 1957, p. 22-26; January 16, 1980, p.D19. □