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Photography courtesy of NIH History Office/Wikimedia
Photo editing by Stephen Kelly

History shows many Black women scientists have been at the forefront of research, some holding positions in esteemed medical organizations. However, their accomplishments often go unrecognized. In this Special Feature, we highlight the life and achievements of the first Black woman chemist in the FDA: Alma Levant Hayden.

Many scientists have garnered worldwide acclaim for their groundbreaking discoveries and accomplishments throughout the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

These individuals have been celebrated for their significant scientific contributions throughout history — many of which have saved countless lives.

However, despite their equally monumental achievements, Black scientists have been largely overlooked in the annals of scientific history.

One of these innovative researchers was Alma Levant Hayden (1927–1967). Known as one of the first Black women to hold a position at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), she was not only a pioneer in the field of chemistry but also an integral part of a discovery that exposed potentially dangerous false claims about a widely publicized cancer drug.

In this Special Feature, we look at the life and career of Alma Levant Hayden, her monumental contributions to science, and why she may not have attained the acclaim she deserved.

Alma Levant Hayden was born in Greenville, SC, on March 30, 1927, and began her chemistry career by graduating with honors from South Carolina State College.

She then obtained a master’s degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her expertise was in spectrophotometry, a type of electromagnetic spectroscopy that measures light wavelength absorption.

In the 1950s, Hayden joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and thus became one of the first female Black scientists to hold such a position in Washington.

She then went on to be one of the first Black women scientists to join the FDA. In 1963, Hayden came to lead the spectrophotometer research branch of the FDA’s Division of Pharmaceutical Chemistry.

She was an accomplished scientist with research published in several journals. For example, using chromatography techniques, Hayden and her colleagues conducted a study on determining individual adrenocortical steroids in urine in 1956.

In 1962, she was involved in research surrounding the identification and determination of adrenocortical steroids, barbiturates, and sulfonamides from paper chromatograms.

Hayden’s most known contribution to American science involves Krebiozen, a substance allegedly discovered in the 1940s by Yugoslavian physician Dr. Stevan Durovic.

Widely publicized as a cure for cancer, this white powdery compound allegedly came from the distilled blood serum of horses and was named Krebiozen after the Greek phrase for “that which regulates growth.”

Dr. Durovic began treating people with Krebiozen, claiming that the drug eliminated tumors and reduced pain. Dr. Andrew C. Ivy and Dr. William F. P. Phillips were also involved in the drug’s distribution and fraudulent claims.

With growing doubt about this unknown substance’s cancer-curing benefits and safety, the FDA sought to test a sample of the drug in their laboratory.

On September 3, 1963, Hayden and her colleagues were assigned the task to determine what the “miracle” drug was and whether it had anti-cancer attributes as claimed.

Using a small sample of the white compound, Hayden tested it with an infrared spectrometer, crossmatching it with known chemicals to reveal its identity.

What she found was astonishing. The miracle cancer drug was nothing more than creatine, an amino acid derivative already found in the human body.

An article from 1966 comments on the case, further explaining the findings:

“By the fall of 1963, FDA had reached its scientific conclusions. The Krebiozen powder, the agency announced, had been identified by several chemical tests as creatine. The contents of Krebiozen ampules were identified as mineral oil, with minute amounts of two other substances, amyl alcohol and 1-methylhydantoin, found in ampules shipped in 1963. FDA’s chemical analysis was soon supported by the findings of the National Cancer Institute that Krebiozen ‘does not possess any anticancer activity in man.'”

As a result of her discovery, officials issued dozens of indictments against several key players in this false cancer treatment scandal.

Another article — this time from November 27, 1984, and published in Time Magazine — outlined the details:

“After […] years of medical claims and counterclaims, of whodunit-style charges and countercharges, the loud controversy over the alleged anti-cancer drug Krebiozen seemed headed at last toward orderly disposition. A federal grand jury in Chicago handed up an 85-page indictment listing 49 counts against Dr. Andrew C. Ivy, 71, three associates, and a corporation. The charges ranged from mail fraud and conspiracy to mislabeling and making false statements to government agencies about the drug.”

Despite the importance of Hayden’s discovery, historical documentation on the Krebiozen scandal does not mention her name.

Commenters have pointed out that, in the mid-twentieth century, FDA researchers only occasionally testified in court cases. Furthermore, although Black scientists did hold official positions in the agency, the FDA did not recommend that they appear in court to relay data.

In the book Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940–1972, Cornell historian Margaret W. Rossiter notes that FDA officials at the time tended to subscribe to antiBlack views, believing that “a [Black] person might prejudice the case in court, in certain sections of the country.”

In the U.S., statistical data reveal inequities in the fields of science and technology, which continue well into the twenty-first century.

According to a comment article published in the journal Nature, between 2015–2018, data collected by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics and the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE) show that Black chemists are still denied access to academic jobs.

Journal authors also note that in the top 50 schools in the U.S., Black students represent 7.9% of bachelor’s degree recipients, 4.5% of Ph.D. recipients, 3.2% of postdoctoral researchers in universities, and 1.6% of chemistry professors.

The authors say: “In particular, Black women and early-career Black researchers suffer the devastating effects of institutionalized racism, with very little opportunity for training and promotion. In many cases, they are made to feel that they do not belong and are regularly subjected to various forms of discrimination, resulting in them leaving academia.”

An example from Europe suggests the existence of widespread global inequities. The Chemistry Europe Fellows Program was founded in 2015 to identify chemists for outstanding research and support as authors, advisers, and services to their national chemical societies.

The organization include 16 chemical societies from 15 countries and have not yet recognized any Black chemists.

Equity across STEM is an urgent need, and several organizations have been formed in the U.S. to bring reform to the scientific community.

The OXIDE are one such organization working toward rectifying inequitable policies found in some academic chemistry departments. They also select diversity leaders within chemistry departments based on accomplishments in their field.

The National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) are another organization supporting and promoting equitable education and professional development of Black students and professionals.

NOBCChE say it is a “nonprofit professional organization dedicated to assisting Black and other minority students and professionals in fully realizing their potential in academic, professional, and entrepreneurial pursuits in chemistry, chemical engineering, and allied fields.”

The goal of these and similar organizations is to prioritize the changes needed to foster the academic and career aspirations of Black students in the science fields.

Besides Hayden’s professional life and accomplishments, her personal life was equally fulfilling. She was married to NIH chemist Alonzo Hayden and had two children, Michael and Andrea.

On August 2, 1967, Hayden died of cancer.

Despite the racial inequities she endured, her work will be forever engrained in the hearts and minds of chemists worldwide.

Her pioneering spirit is also a shining example of unwavering determination and dedication that continues to inspire scientists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds decades later.