When Lee Hazen was born in Mississippi on August 24, 1885, it was not out of the question that she might someday go to college, and even earn a graduate degree. There had been women’s colleges in the U.S. for over a century, and private institutions had been experimenting with co-ed colleges for over 80 years. But it was still rare for a woman to go to college, let alone earn a doctorate in the hard sciences.
Hazen was orphaned by the age of four, then adopted by relatives, along with her sister and brother. Life could have gone very traditionally for Hazen, but during her education in a one-room schoolhouse, she showed intense drive, reading non-fiction books constantly. That drive, combined with her intelligence, and personality, led her to become valedictorian of her senior class. Her uncle and aunt must have believed in her, because after finishing high school, she received private tutoring.
In 1905, Hazen went to an all-women’s institution, the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls (today called Mississippi University for Women, even though it is co-educational), and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1910. That year, 23 percent of all Bachelor’s degrees in America were earned by women. Hazen did what many college-educated women did: she taught. Specifically, she taught biology and physics at a high school in Jackson, Mississippi. While teaching, she took summer courses from the universities of Tennessee and Virginia, then applied and was accepted into the biology program at Columbia University, earning a Master’s in 1917 and a Ph.D. by 1927.
The break in Hazen’s education wasn’t because of sexism, but because of World War I. She volunteered and served as a diagnostic laboratory technician for the Army from 1918-1919. It was during that service that she picked up the nickname, Elizabeth, which became her “first name” thereafter. After the war, she took a position at Cook Hospital in Fairmont, Virginia. She was assistant director of Cook Hospital’s Clinical and Bacteriological Laboratory until 1923, when she returned to Columbia to work on her doctorate. In the 1920s the percentage of doctoral degrees earned by women was in the single digits, so Hazen’s achievement would have made her stand out.
Hazen worked as a teacher and researcher for several laboratories. It was at the Mycology Laboratory of Columbia Medical School that she met Rhoda W. Benham, one of the co-founders of the lab. Benham encouraged Hazen to continue her culture collection, which eventually became its own lab at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. Much later in her life, in 1972, Hazen would receive the Rhoda Benham Award of the Medical Mycological Society of the Americas in honor of her lifetime of work.
In 1931, Hazen took a position at the New York State Department of Health, in its Bacterial Diagnosis Laboratory Division in New York City. Among her notable work there was tracing an outbreak of anthrax, finding the source of a tularemia outbreak, and determining that food poisoning was being caused by improperly preserved foods. By 1948, Hazen’s work on discovering net anti-fungal agents in bacteria needed input from another field of science, chemistry. While Hazen did not choose Rachel Fuller Brown for this position, the two women’s project was going to change the world.
Hazen and Brown shared research and samples through the mail, because Hazen continued to work in New York City, while Brown was north, in Albany. In 1950 they discovered an anti-fungal with mininal side effects on the host animal. Once patented, this became the first antibiotic used to treat fungal infections. They called it Nystatin, a drug still used today in both oral and topical forms to treat Candida infections of the skin.
Hazen may have studied a microscopic world in the lab, but her studies, collections, and collaborations led to impressive changes in medication. By the time Hazen died in 1975, she had been awarded several honors for her work, including the final one during her lifetime, the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists.
Hazen is likely to have faced sexism during her life, but the historical records focus on her achievements, not her challenges. In 1994, she and Brown were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, the second and third women to be inducted in that institution’s 21 years. While it may have taken the hall of fame a long time to recognize Hazen’s contributions, it is clear that many men and women during her lifetime knew she had something to contribute.