Born: November 23, 1898
Died: January 14, 1980
Albany, New York
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. Nystatin earned more than $13 million in royalties during Brown's lifetime, which she and Hazen dedicated to scientific research.
Rachel Fuller 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. Although Fuller did not take an immediate interest in science, she was fascinated with insects and she collected and studied them. In school, however, Fuller went out of her way to avoid science classes.
In 1912 Brown's father left the family. She and her younger brother returned to Springfield with their mother, who, to support them, worked as a secretary, then as an administrator in several Episcopalian churches. Because of the family's financial situation, it looked as though Brown's education would end after high school. But Brown's hard work and determination impressed Henrietta F. Dexter, a wealthy friend of her grandmother, who decided to fund Brown's tuition to Mount Holyoke College in nearby South Hadley, 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 degree in 1920. She later went to the University of Chicago to complete her master's degree 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 doctorate degree in organic chemistry, with a minor in bacteriology. She submitted her thesis (a research project required for graduation) in 1926, but there was a delay in arranging her oral examinations, which she needed to complete in order to get her degree. As her funds ran low, Brown was forced to leave Chicago before her exams. She took a job as an assistant chemist at the Division of Laboratories and Research of the
Brown's early work at the Department of Health focused on identifying the types of bacteria that caused pneumonia, a disease that causes inflammation of the lungs. Brown helped to develop a pneumonia vaccine (an agent used to fight the disease) still in use today. In 1948 she embarked on the project with her associate Elizabeth Hazen, a leading authority on fungus, that would bring them their greatest respect from her peers: the discovery of an antibiotic to fight fungal infections. Penicillin, a groundbreaking antibiotic used to fight a variety of illnesses, had been discovered in 1928, and in the following 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 (a foot fungus), and ring-worm (a contagious skin disease).
Microorganisms (animals or plants of microscopic size) 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 (deadly) with test animals to pursue for human medical use. The other, however, seemed to have promise—it was not 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 (cleansed) 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 (gained official right to the product) 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 continued their research and discovered two additional antibiotics, phalamycin and capacidin. Brown and Hazen were awarded the 1955 Squibb Award in Chemotherapy, the treatment of disease through chemical agents. 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 published in the Chemist shortly before she died, Brown hoped for a future of "equal opportunities and accomplishments for all scientists regardless of sex."
In retirement Brown maintained an active community life, and became the first female vestry (administrator) member of her Episcopalian church. By her death on January 14, 1980, she had paid back Henrietta Dexter, the wealthy woman who had made it possible for her to attend college. Perhaps even more significant, she used the royalties (money earned) from nystatin to help create new funds for scientific research and scholarships.
Baldwin, Richard S. The Fungus Fighters: Two Women Scientists and Their Discovery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Vare, Ethlie Ann and Greg Ptacek. Mothers of Invention. New York: Morrow, 1988, pp. 124–126.
Yost, Edna. Women of Modern Science. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 64–79.