Candida albicans, more commonly known as a yeast infection, can be uncomfortable and painful and if left untreated can have serious long-term health effects. Prior to important discoveries in microbiology by Mississippi native Elizabeth Lee Hazen during the 1950s, no treatment was available to counteract the effects of an imbalance in the bacteria integral to the functions of the human body. But Hazen and her research partner, Rachel Brown, made the widespread treatment of the common yeast infection both safe and effective.
Born on 24 August 1885 in Rich, in Coahoma County, Elizabeth Lee Hazen (known as Lee) was orphaned early in life. Laura and Robert Hazen, an aunt and uncle who lived in Lula, adopted the girl and her two sisters. Though Robert and Laura had little formal schooling, they were staunch advocates of education, and Lee graduated as Lula’s valedictorian in 1904. After one year of private tutoring in Memphis, she matriculated at Mississippi Industrial Institute and College (later Mississippi University for Women), graduating in May 1910 with a bachelor’s degree in science. Hazen then taught high school in Jackson while continuing her education during summers at the University of Tennessee and the University of Virginia. Hazen eventually moved to study full time at Columbia University in New York, earning a master’s degree in 1917.
After a brief break to work in army laboratories during World War I, Hazen returned to study at Columbia in 1923. In 1927 she became one of the first women to receive a doctorate in biomedicine from the school. Hazen stayed on to continue her research and to teach, and in 1931 the head of the New York State Department of Health’s Division of Laboratories hired Hazen to head its Bacterial Diagnosis Laboratory in New York City. During the 1930s and 1940s she researched the origins of a variety of infectious bacteria, including anthrax and tularemia.
World War II saw the exciting discovery and subsequent widespread use of both penicillin and streptomycin, but these medicines had costs as well as benefits. While both antibiotics killed infectious bacteria, they also upset the delicate balance of the body’s bacteria. In 1944 Hazen’s director had her return to Columbia to do research on fungal infections caused by this bacterial imbalance and work to find a fungicide that would combat such illnesses. Using soil samples, Hazen identified bacteria that grew actinomycetes, described by David D. Carson as “a particular class of moldlike microbes containing many antibiotic-producing species,” but she needed a chemist’s expertise to isolate and grow these actinomycetes. Reconnecting with the New York State Health Department, Hazen began working with Brown, and they developed nystatin, a medication that was effective in fighting Candida, Crytococcus, and fourteen other species of fungi. In 1951, after patenting the fungicide, Hazen and Brown sold the manufacturing rights to E. R. Squibb and Sons, which eventually produced a wide range of antifungal medications.
Nystatin still remains the safest and most effective antifungal medication on the market. Yet Hazen and Brown declined personal profit from the sale of the drug. Instead, they split the proceeds between the nonprofit Research Corporation and the Brown-Hazen Fund, which focused specifically on microbiology research. Both women remained active administrators of this fund, especially encouraging young women in the field of science and scientific research. Among other awards, in 1994 Hazen and Brown were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the second and third women to receive that honor. Hazen died in Seattle in 1975.
- David D. Carson, in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, ed. Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie J. Spruill, and Susan Ditto (2003)