Rachel Fuller Brown, along with research associate Elizabeth Lee Hazen, developed the world’s first effective antifungal antibiotic. Named after the New York State Department of Health, for which the two scientists worked, nystatin was first made available for human use in 1954.
Following penicillin’s discovery in 1928, many bacterial illnesses were successfully treated with antibiotics. But antibiotics had problematic side effects, including the rapid growth of fungus. Brown and Hazen’s research led to the use of nystatin to balance the side effects of bacterial antibiotics and to treat a wide variety of fungal illnesses of the skin, mouth, throat, and intestines. Nystatin is still in use today and has even been employed to combat Dutch elm disease and stop fungal growth on water-damaged artworks.
Brown and Hazen also discovered two additional antibiotics, phalamycin and capacidin, and in 1955 were awarded the Squibb Award in Chemotherapy. By the time the patent expired on nystatin, they had earned more than $13 million in royalties, which they donated to the nonprofit Research Corporation to fund scientific research and scholarships.
In 1975, Brown and Hazen were the first women ever to receive the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists. Brown was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke with a double major in history and chemistry, Brown earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Chicago. Throughout her career, as a member of the American Association of University Women, she actively advocated for increasing the partipication of women in science.