WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week - Rachel Fuller Brown

Posted November 18, 2019 12:00 AM by lmno24

Rachel Fuller Brown was an American chemist best known for her collaboration with microbiologist Elizabeth Lee Hazen (who we will feature next week) in developing the first usable antifungal antibiotic.

She was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1898 and when she was young, her family relocated to Webster Groves, Missouri. While she was not interested in science in school, she collected insects and studied them in her free time.

In 1912, her father abandoned the family. Her mother moved the family back to Springfield. It seemed that her education would end after high school due to the financial strain the family endured. But family friend Henrietta Dexter was impressed with her drive and funded Brown’s tuition to Mount Holyoke College.

She discovered her love for chemistry in college. After earning her undergraduate degree, she went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Chicago and then returned for her doctorate. But after submitting her thesis, there was a delay in arranging oral exams and her savings ran out. She had to leave before her final exams and take a job with the Division of Laboratories and Research of the New York State Department of Health in Albany, New York.

Elizabeth Lee Hazen (left) and Rachel Fuller Brown (right).

Her early work focuses on identifying the kind of bacteria that causes pneumonia. She helped develop a vaccine that is still used today.

In 1948, she started her work with Elizabeth Hazen who was a lead authority on fungus. Until their discovery, the only antibiotic option was penicillin, but a common side effect of the drug includes an upset stomach – not an ideal addition to already being sick.

Microorganisms (animals or plants of microscopic size) called actinomycetes were known to produce antibiotics. Brown started to work on them and found that they did kill fungus but they were also fatal to mice. She narrowed her microorganism search to one in particular, Streptomyces norsei, which was found soil on her friend’s dairy farm in Virginia.

Her analysis found that the microorganism produced two antifungal substances. One proved to be toxic, but the other was not and it also attacked a fungus that invades the lungs, and central nervous system and candidiasis, a fungal infection.

She purified the antibiotic and in 1950, Brown and Hazen announced the discovery. They patented it under the name "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 finished product, Mycostatin, became available in tablet form in 1954 to patients suffering from candidiasis. The discovery has also been valuable in agricultural and livestock applications, and has even been used to stop fungal growth on water-damaged art.

In 1955, Brown and Hazen were awarded the Squibb Award in Chemotherapy. In 1975, they were the first women to the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists. Brown was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994.

By the time the nystatin patent expired, they had earned more than $13 million in royalties, which they donated to fund scientific research scholarships.

She lived an active life in her retirement and spent a lot of time in her church community. She died in Albany in 1980.

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