Little Girls and Bugs
It is a little known fact that the state of Mississippi had one of the first public colleges for women in the United States. It is a very well-known fact that if you are to spend ten minutes in the state of Mississippi, you will encounter bugs of some sort. The humid, warm weather is a virtual Petrie dish for insects and other miniscule wild life as well as mold.
The “W” as it was affectionately called for many years was an institution created in 1884. Formerly titled the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of [White] Girls, Mississippi University for Women became the first public college for women in the United States. Its purpose was to provide a liberal arts education for women and to prepare them for employment. The War Between the States had proven women could work and work hard since most of the men had gone off to enlist and the women were left to take care of the farms and factories. Today the university offers its more than fifty undergraduate and eight graduate programs of studies to both women and men but the emphasis on opportunities for women is still prominent in its function.
Elizabeth Lee Hazen graduated from the “W” in 1910. She and her two siblings had been adopted by an aunt and uncle after the death of their parents. Elizabeth had always enjoyed playing with bugs and her degree was in science. She taught biology and physics to high school students in the capital city of Jackson but spent her summer completing further studies in Tennessee and Virginia. She applied and was granted admission to the graduate program at Columbia University and graduated from there in 1917 with a master’s degree in biology. Ten years later she would become one fo the first women to receive a Ph.D. there in 1927, having studied microbiology.
While recently such things as anthrax and ricin have made news as bio warfare substances, Elizabeth Lee Hazen studied ricin in the late 1920’s. Her career included working for the United States Army in studying bacteria and mold but she is best known for her work with Rachel Fuller Brown.
Rachel Fuller Brown grew up in Springfield Massachusetts. After moving to Missouri during her teen years, the family returned to Springfield and Rachel would eventually study at Mount Holyoke College. She changed her major from history to chemistry and in 1948 found herself working on a project with Elizabeth Lee Hazen in the field of microbiology.
Diseases and infections have long been an enemy of healthy living and while some are due to poor hygiene, many others are the result of bacteria and mold. The discovery of penicillin in 1928 led to more antibiotics being developed and used to fight such infections. Such drugs would allow for rapid growth of fungus, however, and such fungi could result in stomach disorders or mouth lesions. Such health problems like ring worm or athlete’s foot were grace problems and little was known about them. Botanists discovered antinomycetes that lived in the soil which would kill such fungi but in laboratory tests, they also killed the test subjects so these were not considered safe for humans to use.
Fungus led to mold and not only was this harmful to humans, it devastated trees with creating Dutch Elm disease. Even artwork would fall prey to mold as masterpieces were literally falling apart when mold became the result of poor storage conditions and high humidity.
Hazen and Fuller worked together but in different locations. Their success in developing a class of drugs they named fungicidin but now known as nystatin has led to its being considered one of the most necessary and important drugs by the World Health Organization. The drug works by breaking down the cell structure of the fungus or mold. It helps combat such common ailments as diaper rash, athlete’s foot, thrush, and other fungal infections.
The story of Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown is not just a testament to what women can do, however. It is also the story of how important it is that we each do the very best we can, regardless of what our job title is. You see, the two women garnered success due to the good working of the United States Postal. They worked in different locations, Hazen in New York City and Brown in Albany, New York. They would do their experiments and then mail them to each other in mason jars. Post Office employees doing their jobs allowed for this success.
The two women did not want the millions of dollars in royalties that their work produced and instead created the Brown-Hazen fund for philanthropy and funding of women and men in education and science. As Rachel Fuller Brown explained, they wanted to provide “equal opportunities and accomplishments for all scientists regardless of sex.” For several years the fund was the largest single source of nonfederal funds for medical mycology in the United States
So the next time you are able to clean away mold or take something for a fungal infection, thank these two women. I must add another notation to the life of Rachel Fuller Brown. A devout Episcopalian, she served as a leader for her parish of St Peter’s in Albany, teaching church school and becoming the first female vestry person at her church. She lived with her friend Dorothy Wakerley and they offered the hospitality of their home to their extended family and friends. For over fifty years, Brown was also an active member of the American Association of University Women, strongly supporting the participation of women in science.
Some today would have run her out of town, assuming something about her sharing a house with her friend. How would such discrimination have prevented the development of this very important class of drugs? Discrimination is itself an ugly infection that takes hold and kills – not only the spirit but potential and even lives. We need to see each person for the unique, wonderfully made creature that they are and not place ridiculous labels on them. These two little girls that played with bugs have saved millions of lives. Tomorrow we will study another little girl whose love of playing dolls would also help the world. The truth is, we are living better today because of the diversity of women and the things they can accomplish.