|Elizabeth Hazen (lft) (1885-1975)|
Rachel Brown (rt) (1898-1980)
Itchy ears. The problem had plagued me for years it seemed. Fed up with with my family physician's inability to help me, I went to an eye, ear and nose doctor--the kind parents usually take their kids to. The doctor knew exactly what to do. He cleaned my ears and prescribed a fungicide called Nystatin. It took awhile, but slowly the itchiness disappeared. It felt like a miracle.
Fungal infections can be life-threatening to burn victims, organ transplant recipients, AIDS patients, and those undergoing chemotherapy, but less serious infections like athlete's foot, yeast infections, infant oral thrush and the itchy ear problem I had can be chronic. Nystatin is mostly used to treat fungal infections of the skin, mouth, vagina, esophagus, and intestinal tract. But it has also been used for non medical reasons, as in the prevention of mold spreading on valuable works of art. In that regard, you might say Nystatin has saved thousands (maybe millions) of dollars in art restoration.
In 1950, Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown, while working for the Division of Laboratories and Research (New York State Department of Health) discovered Nystatin. It was the first effective antifungal medicine ever.
Elizabeth Hazen's journey to becoming a microbiologist was long and arduous. Orphaned at the age of three, the odds were hardly in her favor. Women rarely entered the field of science in the early 1900s. Nevertheless, Elizabeth managed to attend a women's college in Mississippi. Proving herself capable, she earned a degree, and with a diploma in hand, she found a job teaching high school physics and biology. Later, she returned to school to obtain an advanced degree, but was discouraged from continuing by university authorities who thought her southern education was inadequate. Undaunted, Elizabeth forged ahead and earned a Ph.D. in microbiology, proving her background was indeed adequate.
Rachel Brown's journey was less difficult in Massachusetts. She was the recipient of a high school scholarship early on and had the financial backing of a well-to-do local woman. While in college another woman, who happened to be the chair of the chemistry department, also mentored and greatly encouraged her. Like Elizabeth, Rachel taught school for awhile, then later returned to school where she earned a Ph.D in chemistry.
Two journeys, as different as night and day, but two women in partnership, destined to discover an amazing drug.
The partnership began in the 1940s, when Elizabeth and Rachel began testing and analyzing hundreds of soil samples from around the world. First, Elizabeth would culture the organisms in the samples and test them against two significant fungi, Candida albicans and Cryptococcus neoformans. If any tested positive, she would mail the sample to Rachel, who then tried to isolate the active agent in the culture. The process was tedious, as it was also important the agent not be toxic to animals.
Finally, after much testing, one soil culture passed all of the tests with flying colors. (Ironically, the soil tested was not from some remote region across the world . . . but from a friend's home garden).
Elizabeth and Rachel had just discovered the fungicide, Nystatin.
Copyright 2015 © Sharon Marie Himsl