Monday, November 23, 2015

Rachel Fuller Brown - scientist and advocate

When she was fourteen, Rachel Fuller Brown dropped out of school to pursue a degree at a vocational school with the intention of helping to support her family. Her father had abandoned them and she and her mother and brother were struggling to get by. Fortunately for all of us, her mother put her foot down and forced her to return to to her studies, insisting that her own daughter would attend college and earn the degree she never could.

Rachel went on to study chemistry in college, earning her Bachelor's at Mount Holyoke and her Doctorate at the University of Chicago, and eventually was part of a partnership that discovered an antifungal medicine still used today to treat serious fungal infections related to chemotherapy, AIDS, and organ transplants.

Elizabeth Lee Hazen (left) and Rachel Fuller Brown (photo source: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Rachel Fuller Brown was born November 23, 1898. She excelled in high school once her mother convinced her to pursue a classical education. Even though it was her mother's wish, college was still not a guarantee. The tuition at Mount Holyoke was beyond the family's means. Left destitute by her husband, Annie Fuller was responsible for caring for her two children as well as her grandparents. She was able to find work as the Director of Religious Education for several local Episcopalian churches, but money was still very tight.

A miracle happens
Once Rachel had set her sights on studying at Mount Holyoke, though, a seeming miracle occurred. Impressed by her determination, Henrietta F. Dexter, a friend of Rachel's grandmother, made an extremely generous gift to her of paying for all four years of her education. In 1916, when women attending college was a rarity, and women studying in the sciences even more so, Rachel Fuller Brown entered Mount Holyoke. Her initial goal of studying history was quickly expanded to also include chemistry when she fell in love with the subject. She graduated with honors, receiving her Bachelor's in both subjects.

Her work at Mount Holyoke so impressed Emma Perry Carr, herself a respected chemist and educator, she took Rachel under her wing, serving as the young woman's mentor. It was she who advised Rachel to pursue a graduate degree in chemistry at the University of Chicago.

Not a teacher
Initially, Rachel only pursued a Masters in chemistry, with the intention of taking a teaching job. But after teaching for a few years, she was miserable and realized there was no way she could spend the rest of her life as a teacher. So she marshaled her meager savings and returned to the University of Chicago to earn a doctorate in both organic chemistry and bacteriology. She ran out of money just after submitting her PhD thesis in 1926, and was desperate to find work, leaving Chicago before she could defend it.

Still, even without the "piece of paper" she quickly found a position at the Division of Laboratories and Research of the New York Department of Health in Albany, which had a reputation of recruiting young female scientists, and was famous for discovering the causes for many diseases and developing tests and treatments for them.

Balancing work and life
At the Division of Laboratories, she worked on improving syphilis testing, eventually discovering a less expensive method, and later researched pneumonia, identifying 40 different strands, and creating an antiserum for each. Happily engaged in her work studying diseases and ways to improve the public's health, Rachel settled down to a satisfying life in Albany, New York. Attending St. Peter's Episcopal Church, she met her life-long companion Dorothy Wakerley. Their home was continually filled with family members -- Rachel's grandmother and mother moved in, as did a handful of nieces and nephews over the years -- as well as traveling female scientists.

Mason jars of dirt
In 1948 she began working with fellow scientist Elizabeth Lee Hazen. It was a long-distance partnership, as Elizabeth worked as a microbiologist out of the New York City office of the Department of Health. Both were on the hunt to find an antifungal antibiotic that was safe for human use. Research into fungal diseases was just beginning, and while many antibiotics already existed, many were far too strong and often left their patient's immune system at risk for deadly fungal infections. Elizabeth and Rachel worked tirelessly to find an answer. Elizabeth would research soil samples and when she found one that seemed promising, she'd send it along in the mail to Rachel to purify and potentially isolate the particular chemical compound able to stop fungal growth.

Finally, after several years of research, the two discovered an antifungal substance called Fractions AN which proved to be an effective treatment for two life-threatening diseases -- cryptococcosis and candidiasis. They named it Nystatin after the state of New York.

Rachel Fuller Brown (left) and Elizabeth Lee Hazen (photo source: National Inventors Hall of Fame)

Blazing a trail
Rachel presented their work at the 1950 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences regional meeting, and almost immediately pharmaceutical companies were vying for the right to produce this wonder drug. E.R. Squibb and Sons were the lucky company, and they quickly set to work testing the compound in humans. The first tablets were available in 1954, now called mycostatin.

All royalties on their discovery, eventually totally $13.4 million, were paid to the Research Corporation of New York a nonprofit set up by Elizabeth and Rachel with the goal of encouraging further biomedical research (and specifically in mycology) and encouraging more women to pursue careers in science.

There is little doubt that the support of the multitude of women in her life enabled her to do the important work she did. Her successes are the direct result of a combination of her innate talent and dedication, her mother's determination to give her daughter a better life, the financial support from Henrietta F. Dexter, the scholarly advice from Emma Perry Carr, the love and support of her life partner Dorothy Wakerley, and the scientific support from Elizabeth Lee Hazen. And I am certain Rachel herself was aware of this, as well as her own duty to young women coming behind her. Even while she was working in the lab, she took time out to advocate for women in science, serving as the president of her local American Association of University Women (AAUW), as well as visiting campuses around the country to encourage other young women to follow in her footsteps.

She retired in 1968, but continued to push for more women in science. She set up numerous scholarships on her own, enabling countless young women to pursue college study.

More reading:
AAUW: From Mason Jar to Wonder Drug: Rachel Fuller Brown and the Development of Nystatin
Chemical Heritage Foundation: Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown
Notable American Women: Rachel Fuller Brown

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