This is the story of two women in Albany whose discovery changed the world of medicine.
By the early 1950s there had been a number of advances that lead to the development of antibiotics (penicillin, tetracycline, etc.) for bacterial infections. But there was nothing for disease caused by fungal agents – acquired from a primary source (as is common in tropical climes) or secondary to antibiotic use (and chemotherapy). Fungal diseases can range from minor ailments – athlete’s foot, etc. – merely annoying and readily treatable with an OTC product, but they also can be severe and systemic – or in extreme cases – fatal if untreated.
But thanks to scientists from Albany that changed. Dr. Rachel Fuller Brown and Dr. Elizabeth Lee Hazen discovered the first medication that could effectively treat fungal infections without adverse human effects. The drug they discovered is on the World Health Organization’s “Essential List of Drugs” – a critical element in the medical tool kit to fight fungal infections that that can range from the merely annoying to the life threatening.
Rachel Fuller Brown
Rachel Brown was born in the late 1890s and raised mostly in Springfield, Mass. She attended nearby Mount Holyoke College (paid for a family friend). In 1920 she graduated with a double major in chemistry and history. By 1921 she’d earned an MS in organic chemistry from the University of Chicago. For several years she taught at a girl’s school, but then went on to Harvard and the University for Additional Graduate Work in chemistry and bacteriology, completing her Ph.D. thesis in 1926. But financial problems intervened, and she left without being awarded her doctoral degree.
Brown was hired by Dr. Augustus Wadsworth* (after whom the Wadsworth Lab is named) to work for the NYS Division of Laboratories and Research on New Scotland Ave (opposite Albany Hospital – the building is still there) in 1927. The lab, under the direction of Dr. Wadsworth, was internationally known for its work on immunology (diphtheria, typhoid, tetanus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, etc.) and environmental public health issue (water and food borne illnesses).
She settled into her life in Albany readily. Her major work focus in these years was development of a pneumonia vaccine. In 1933 she finally took her oral exam, was awarded her doctoral degree, and became Dr. Brown. She was a leader in the Albany’s chapter of the American Association of University Women. (AAUW), the City Club and active member of St. Peter’s Church.
Elizabeth Lee Hazen
Hazen was born in 1885 in Rich, Mississippi. She graduated with a BA in science in 1910. Initially she taught high school biology and physics, taking graduate courses during the summer, but then entered Columbia University in NYC. She received her Masters in Biology in 1917 (during World War I she was an Army lab tech), and her Ph.D. in microbiology in 1927 (doing research on ricin and the botulism toxin while working on her degree). After graduation she was staff bacteriologist at several teaching hospitals in NYC.
In 1931 she went to work for NYS Dept. of Health, Bacterial Diagnosis Laboratory Division in New York City. Hazen had major epidemiological successes – identifying the sources of food poisoning and anthrax out breaks. In 1944 Dr. Wadsworth, appointed Hazen head of a unit to investigate fungi and their relation to bacteria and other microbes. Over time she amassed her own fungal culture collection from soils she encountered during her travels.
In 1948 Hazen embarked on a long distance collaboration with Rachel Brown in the Albany lab, in an attempt to find a drug that would cure fungal illnesses. Hazen would identify promising cultures that might contain an organism that could fight fungal disease and mail them in mason jars to Brown in Albany., Brown would isolate the activate agent in the soil specimen and then mail it back to Hazen. In NYC it would be tested on to determine its efficacy and toxicity for humans. Finally after years of work, Hazen found sample in a cow pasture on a farm of a friend in Virginia. In 1950, from this sample Brown identified a substance that was effective – killing over 15 fungal variants, and was safe for humans. The same year they presented their finding to the National Academy of Sciences.
They first named the drug fungicidin, but found that the name was already in use, changed it to “Nystatin” in honor of New York State. They worked with E.R. Squibb & Son to develop a safe method of mass production, and receive FDA approval; the drug was released for use in 1954, and was patented in 1957.
(As their work continued and showed promise, Hazen moved to Albany. Hazen ultimately settled in an apartment on State St. while Brown bought a house on Buckingham Drive. )
Royalties for nystatin totaled $13.4 million. Brown and Hazen donated half to a philanthropic foundation to further scientific research and the other half to support what became known as the Brown-Hazen Fund, to expand research and experimentation in biology and mycology (with a special focus on assisting women who wanted to pursue these careers). Between 1957 and 1978 the fund was the largest single source of nonfederal funds for medical mycology in the United States.
Both Hazen and Brown continued working for the Lab until their retirement. They received a number of awards and in 1975 were the first women to receive the American Institute of Chemists Chemical Pioneer Award.
Hazen’s book Laboratory Identification of Pathogenic Fungi Simplified (1960, with revised editions) is still in use today and is still cited in current scientific literature.
*Wadsworth was man ahead of his time. If you look at the lab staff roster as early as 1921 about 80% of the professional and para-professional chemistry and bacteriology staff was female. Mind blowing for the time.
If you want to know more about these remarkable women, we recommend “The Fungus Fighters”, Richard S. Baldwin, Cornell University Press, 1981.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor