Hazen, Elizabeth (1885-1975)

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Hazen, Elizabeth (1885-1975)

American microbiologist

Elizabeth Hazen, through a long-distance collaboration with her colleague Rachel Brown, developed the first non-toxic drug treatment for fungal infections in humans.

Hazen was born in Rich, Mississippi, on August 24, 1885, and raised by relatives in Lula, Mississippi, after the death of her parents. Hazen attended the public schools of Coahoma County, Mississippi, and earned a B.S. from the State College for Women, now Mississippi University for Women. She began teaching high school science and continued her own education during summers at the University of Tennessee and University of Virginia.

In 1916, Hazen began studying bacteriology at Columbia University, where she earned an M.A. the following year. World War I provided some opportunities for women scientists, and Hazen served in the Army diagnostic laboratories and subsequently in the facilities of a West Virginia hospital. Following the war, she returned to Columbia University to pursue a doctorate in microbiology, which she earned in 1927 at age 42.

After a four-year stint at Columbia University as an instructor, Hazen joined the Division of Laboratories and Research of the New York State Department of Health. She was assigned to special problems of bacterial diagnosis and spent the next few years researching bacterial diseases. She investigated an outbreak of anthrax , tracing it to a brush factory in Westchester County. Hazen discovered unknown sources of tularemia in New York and was the first to identify imported canned seafood that had spoiled as the cause of type E toxin deaths.

Her discoveries led Hazen to try to better understand mycotic (fungal) diseases. In 1944, she was given the responsibility of investigating such diseases, and she acquired cultures of fungi from local laboratories and specialized collections. Although Hazen was learning more about mycotic diseases, fungal infections continued to spread in epidemic proportions among school children in New York City. In addition to pneumonia , many other fungal diseases caused widespread ailments, such as moniliasis (thrush ), a mouth condition that makes swallowing painful. Despite personal health problems and stressful working conditions, Hazen persevered.

In the mid-1940s, she teamed up with Rachel Brown (18981980), a chemist at the Albany laboratory who prepared extracts from the cultures sent by Hazen. In the fall of 1950, Hazen and Brown announced at a National Academy of Sciences meeting that they had successfully produced two antifungal agents from an antibiotic. This led to their development of Nystatin, the first fungicide safe for treating humans. Nystatin was immediately used nationwide, earning $135,000 in its first year.

Nystatin, which is still sold as a medication today under various trade names, turned out to be an extremely versatile substance. In addition to curing serious fungal infections of the skin and digestive system, it can also combat Dutch Elm disease in trees and even restore artwork damaged by water and mold . Remarkably, Hazen and Brown chose not to accept any royalties from the patent rights for Nystatin. Instead, they established a foundation to support advances in science. The donated royalties totaled more than $13 million by the time the patent expired. Hazen died on June 24, 1975.

See also Candidiasis; Fungicide; Yeast, infectious

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