Wishing to pay back those that supported her chemistry career, Rachel Fuller Brown donated the royalties from her patent for antifungal drug, Nystatin, to research and training.
Rachel Fuller Brown was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1898, though not long after she was born her father, an estate agent, moved the family to Missouri. At school, Brown tended to avoid science classes but nonetheless took an interest in insects, which she began to collect. She and a small group of others became acquainted with a local scientist, Professor Onderdonk, who had a microscope and taught her how to preserve the insects she collected.
Although her family life had always been turbulent, events came to a head in 1912 when her father left the family, leaving Brown’s mother to look after her and her younger brother. The family moved back to Springfield, and Brown went to a new school which did not have any chemistry or physics on the curriculum.
Her mother wanted her to be able to go to college, but the family’s financial situation made this very difficult. Despite the odds, her mother worked very hard to raise the necessary money, working as an administrator in local churches and securing loans. Brown won a scholarship from her school due to her excellent grades, but the cost of the fees was so high that even with all the money that had been saved, it was not enough to pay for college.
Fortunately, her hard work and determination had attracted the attention of Henrietta F. Dexter, a wealthy friend of Brown’s grandmother. Dexter decided to fund Brown’s tuition at Mount Holyoke College, a nearby college for women. As Brown had only studied the basics of science, she chose to major in history, but after taking chemistry as the compulsory science component of her degree, she became deeply interested in the subject.
“I liked it, though even today I can’t be sure why, unless it was because of its ordered pattern and precision.”
Fortunately, Mount Holyoke had an excellent chemistry department and Brown decided to co-major in history and chemistry, graduating in 1920. The head of Mount Holyoke’s chemistry department, Dr Emma Carr, encouraged her to undertake further study, and so Brown took a Master’s degree at Dr Carr’s alma mater, the University of Chicago.
Following her graduation, she taught science in a local girls’ school for three years, during which she saved money for a doctoral degree. She returned to the University of Chicago in 1924, and through hard work, she completed her PhD in organic chemistry in just two years. However, due to an unknown delay, her final viva examination was never scheduled and with her reserves of money spent, she urgently needed to find work. She was offered an assistant chemist position at the research department of the New York State Department of Health, and accepted, knowing it would allow her to be close to her mother and grandmother. She left Chicago with her PhD incomplete.
Brown began her research in Albany, New York, on the chemistry of pneumonia-causing microorganisms – there were no antibiotics in those days, and pneumonia was poorly understood. Brown studied the different carbohydrates produced from different samples of pneumonia-infected tissue, and helped identify the different types of pneumonia-causing microorganisms, which was very helpful to doctors trying to cure the disease. Seven years into this work, she visited Chicago for a meeting and met the research supervisor from her PhD. Her viva examination was quickly arranged, and she was finally awarded her PhD.
Her work on pneumonia led Brown to another medical problem of the day. With the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics began to cure many previously untreatable diseases; however, many patients subsequently developed fungal infections, for which there was no cure. Brown set about trying to find an effective antifungal medicine, which put her in contact with Dr Elizabeth Hazen at her laboratory in New York city.
Hazen was a distinguished mycologist who had lots of experience with disease-causing fungi. She would gather many soil samples from all over the country and culture the bacteria in them, then test to see if any of the compounds they produced were effective against two test species of fungi. When she saw something promising, she would send a sample in broth, contained in nothing but a jar, to Brown through the post. Brown would receive the broth and set about the painstaking task of isolating the active compound and purifying it. Once this had been achieved, she would post it back to Hazen for tests on the two fungi. If they were effective, they would be tested on animals.
After many years of sending samples back and forth, Hazen found excellent activity from a microorganism taken from soil near a friend’s dairy farm in Virginia. Brown purified the active compound, and it was found to be effective against a wide variety of fungi and safe in the animal tests. The two scientists named the compound Nystatin, in honour of the New York State laboratories in which they worked, and announced their discovery in 1950.
Brown and Hazen patented the compound through the Research Corporation, and sold the license to the pharmaceutical company E. R. Squibb, who discovered a commercial way to make the drug on a large scale. Their compound immediately found many uses in treating human infections, and is still used today for that purpose. Since then it has also been used for the treatment of Dutch elm disease and to restore paintings damaged by fungi.
Nystatin would accumulate over $13 million in royalties over the course of the patent. Never forgetting the generosity shown to her during her studies, Brown (with the agreement of Hazen) ensured that all the funds were used to fund further research, either in grants or for training. By the time of her death, Brown had paid back all the money which had been given to her by her benefactor many years before.
After their success with Nystatin, Brown and Hazen went on to discover two antibiotics before Brown retired in 1968. Even in her retirement, Brown remained active, teaching at the Sunday school of her local church, contributing to chemical research, and helping young people access the education from which she had gained so much. She died in Albany, in 1980.
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Image © Smithsonian Institution Archives
Published Auguest 2014