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#Inspiredbyher. Rachel Fuller Brown, the woman behind the greatest biomedical invention after penicillin

Her love of chemistry and her determination in the lab made Rachel Fuller Brown one of the most important biomedical researchers. She dedicated her life to science and charity, supporting women looking to find a place for themselves in the scientific community while gifting the world with the most effective drug to fight fungal infections.

Rachel Fuller Brown, together with Elizabeth Lee Hazen, developed the first useful antifungal antibiotic. Nystatin, still produce today, is used to treat fungal infections not only in humans but also in trees and damaged works of art. It is considered the greatest biomedical invention after penicillin and earned a Fuller Brown spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Discovering chemistry

Rachel Fuller Brown was born in 1898, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Coming from a broken home, with her father leaving the family with virtually no money, it was hard to imagine that the girl from Springfield will follow a passion for learning that will ultimately make her a pioneer in chemistry.

But even at a young age, Rachel was determined to receive the best education she could and this impressed a patroness that helped her pay for Mount Holyoke College, an institution that was well known for its science department at that time.

But young Rachel prepared herself for a major in history, just like her mother thought she should, encouraged to take up traditional education, more suitable for women in those times. But when she was required to do a science course, Rachel met Emma Perry Carr, a scientist and educator that became her mentor.

And Rachel fell in love with chemistry. She decided for two majors, history and chemistry, but it was already obvious that Rachel’s predilection was for working in the laboratories.

That was exactly what she did after getting her B.A., beginning work as an assistant and earning her M.S. form the University of Chicago in organic chemistry. She even taught for three years at the Frances Shimer School near Chicago, before returning to University and beginning her work in bacteriology.

Her strained financial situation forced her to leave before getting her Ph.D. but it was the job that she landed next that gave her the opportunity for a great discovery. She returned seven years later for her oral examination and finally received her Ph.D.

Mason jars and the Post Office

Rachel Fuller Brown, the woman behind Nystatine
source: Wikimedia Commons

Fuller Brown found a job at the Division of Laboratories and Research, a major arm of the New York Department of Health commonly known as simply “the Division”. It was set up specifically for research and Brown’s work begun with helping the development of a vaccine for pneumonia before launching herself full force into finding a drug that worked on fungal infections.

The cost of penicillin

Fungal diseases was an unexplored field with patients suffering from mild to severe infections with apparently no cure in sight. Penicillin was discovered just a few years back. Fuller begun her antibacterial and antifungal work in 1948.

But the side effects of using penicillin were not yet fully understood and as the miracle drug was commonly used, more and more patients started complaining about sore mouths or upset stomachs.

They had mild fungal infections but in some cases, patients developed severe cases and there was no treatment available. And while the scientific community was making progress, the quest to find microorganisms that produce antibiotics capable of fighting off the infections came at a standstill since substances proved to be extremely toxic and in some cases lethal.

Give thanks to the Post Office

In an age of instant communication it is hard to phantom how painstakingly hard it was for scientists to collaborate, share results and verify their findings. It took months and weeks for letters to go back and forth and in the case of Brown and Hazen, it took time for jars to be delivered from New York to Albany and back again.

Two women and the United States Postal Service became the major players in the search for antibiotics. Fuller Brown partnered up with Elizabeth Lee Hazen, working at her New York City Lab, collecting organisms from soil samples and testing their ability to fight off infections.

Hazen was responsible with detecting antifungal activities and when one culture of microorganisms looked promising, she would mail it to Brown in a tightly sealed mason jar.

It was Fuller Brown’s job to use chemistry in order to isolate the agent or the ingredient that might hold the key to fighting off fungal diseases. She had little help from technologies back then and she had to rely on her own patience and determination, coupled with an extreme attention to details, in order to be able to isolate the active agent.

And after all this hard work, the results had to be mailed back to Hazen, in order to be tested against two types of fungi, responsible for most of the infections.

The treasure trove near the barn

The work was strenuous and the finish line seamed far ahead as agent after agent killed off the animals. They were too toxic to be tested on humans but the two scientists caught a lucky break when Hazen received a soil sample from her friends. In that sample, Brown found an agent that was effective against fungi but not fatal to animals and in honor of the family that donated the soil, the sample was named Streptomyces norsei.

The Nourses collected the soil sample near their barn and it contained not one but two agents that fought off fungi infections. Brown named the two compounds Fractions N and AN. While N produced fatalities in lab mice, AN proved to be a treasure trove, it not only was effective against the two most common types of fungi responsible for infections but it fought off other 14 as well.

Rejecting a fortune to promote women

Brown succeeded in purifying the compound and the Division patented the formula that will be used in the mass production of mycostatin, some six years after Brown started her research.

Royalties coming from the pharmaceutical companies amounted to $13.4 million just during Brown’s own lifetime but the two women rejected to cash in the money. Instead, the Division set up a foundation in their names, committed to providing scholarships for women looking to find their place in the scientific world. Half of the fund went to further research development.

Nystatin can be used to treat molds and yeast infections and it was the first antifungal safe for human use. And while it is in use today to treat many serious fungal infections, in the course of time, scientists found that it can also be employed to salvage works of art and even trees, infected with Dutch Elm Disease.

But with all the success of the drug, the two women remained in their laboratories and came up with other two antibiotics: phalmycin and capacidin. For their work, Brown and Hazen were the first women ever to receive, in 1975, the American Institute of Chemists’ Chemical Pioneer Award.

Fuller Brown also established scholarships on her own, being an ardent advocate for women in science and speaking out against gender inequality in the research departments. She even opened up the doors of her home to traveling women scientists and was also active in other charitable pursuits, especially through her church.

Sylvia Jacob