From Mason Jar to Wonder Drug: Rachel Fuller Brown and the Development of Nystatin

Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Brown work in their lab in the 1950s

Elizabeth Lee Hazen (left) and Rachel Brown at work in their lab. Image via Wikimedia Commons

May 07, 2014

Take my word for it: If you ever read about an accomplished woman scientist, chances are she has a connection to AAUW. Rachel Fuller Brown, the scientist who developed the first antifungal antibiotic with fellow chemist Elizabeth Lee Hazen, is a perfect example.

Born in 1898 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Brown attended Mount Holyoke College. Her tuition was paid for by Henrietta Dexter, a friend of Brown’s grandmother, who was impressed by Brown’s hard work and dedication.

At the urging and encouragement of Emma P. Carr, then chair of the chemistry department at Mount Holyoke College, Brown pursued a career in science. (Note: Carr was an AAUW fellow, receiving the Alice Freeman Palmer fellowship in 1929.)

Brown not only received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Mount Holyoke in 1920 but earned her doctorate in chemistry from the University of Chicago.

She accepted a job in the division of laboratories and research in the New York state Department of Health. In 1948 she began the collaboration with Hazen that would lead to the development of the first antifungal antibiotic. Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin in 1928, and while it successfully treated bacterial infections, its use often came with the nasty side effect of fungal infections. There was not yet an antifungal antibiotic.

Brown and Hazen’s work started rather simply — with mason jars and the U.S. mail. They put soil samples in the jars and sent them through the mail to each other for lab analysis. A sample from a Virginia farm led to the development of the first antifungal antibiotic, named Nystatin after the New York State Department of Health, in 1950. Patent #2,797,183 was granted on June 25, 1957.

Nystatin went beyond eliminating annoying fungal infections such as athlete’s foot and ringworm by curing potentially major fungal infections of the skin and body. It continues to be used today to treat deadly fungal infections associated with chemotherapy, AIDS, and organ transplants.

When the patent expired on Nystatin, the two women received $13.4 million in royalties, which they donated to the nonprofit Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement. Half of the funds went to general purposes; the other half established the Brown-Hazen Fund to provide scholarships and funding to students and researchers in the life sciences. Brown ultimately even repaid Henrietta Dexter, the woman who had funded her college education.

In 1975 Brown and Hazen became the first women to receive the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists. They were both also posthumously inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994.

A proud AAUW member of more than 50 years, Brown served as president of the AAUW Albany (NY) Branch. Through her involvement with AAUW, she encouraged young women to pursue their education and careers in the sciences, just like Emma P. Carr and Henrietta Dexter did for her.

Suzanne Gould By:   |   May 07, 2014

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