Celebrating black history month with Alma Levant Hayden, the lady who uncovered a cancer fraud drug

Updated: Apr 10

In honour of Black history month, we want to acknowledge the contributions of black scientists who changed the world of sustainability over the last 1.5 centuries - scientists you probably haven't heard of.

Black people continue to face challenges as they pursue careers in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics.

From a lack of role models to inequities or discrimination in the workplace, but some of them managed to overcome all these challenges in the greatest way possible.

Nevertheless, intersectionality is an issue.

Being black and a woman is a bad combination if you want to have your accomplishments recognised; even if you were at the forefront of research, even if you were holding a position in a well-recognised organisation.

In this third feature, after George Washington Carver [1], and Dr Percy Lavon Julian [2], we would like to present to you an American chemist, the first black woman in the F.D.A, the woman who uncovered the cure for cancer, that was a fraud: Mrs Alma Levant Hayden.

Alma Hayden

Her studies

Born in 1927, she graduated with honours, at 20 years old, from South Carolina State College, a historically black college in South Carolina.

She initially wanted to become a nurse but felt towards chemistry.

She studied at the University of Howard, in Washington D.C., one of the most distinguished Universities of the USA, not sectarian but open to all sexes and races,[2] and obtained her master’s in chemistry.

She specialised in infrared spectroscopy.[3]

Infrared Spectroscopy is the analysis of infrared light interacting with a molecule.

Infrared light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The human eye cannot see it, but humans can detect it as heat.

Electromagnetic Spectrum

The interaction between infrared light and matter is used by chemists to characterise molecules by determining functional groups present in them, such as carboxylic acids, esters, etc.

An accomplished scientist

In the 1950s, Anna Levant Hayden joined the National Institute of Health.

In the mid-1950s Hayden moved to the FDA, the Food and drug administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, created to protect consumers from potentially dangerous or ineffective drugs and from potential food dangers.

Knowing that the FDA did not want to hire black scientists, because they were afraid that if they had to testify in court, that might prejudice the case, because their testimony would be disregard, because of the colour of their skin; that was an achievement.

More, Hayden became Chief of the Spectrophotometer Research Branch in the Division of Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 1963.[4]

She worked with her colleagues on chromatographic techniques to characterise adrenocortical steroids in urine.[5]

The main role of adrenal steroids is to regulate electrolyte and water levels in the kidneys.

She also worked on characterising barbiturates and sulfonamides from paper chromatograms.

Barbiturates are sedative drug used to relax the body and help people sleep, they were popular at the XIXth century at sleeping pills or recreative drugs.

Sulfamides are an antibacterial agents.

She has published 17 articles in renowned journals.

A career linked to the strengthening of the FDA role.

In the late 1950s, thalidomide, a non-barbiturate sedative was advertised as safe for everyone, including pregnant women.

Future mothers used to take the pill to prevent morning sickness.

It was an over-the-counter drug sold in 46 countries, in the early sixties, as popular as aspirin.

Thalidomide tablets

This medication caused thousands of mothers to give birth to disabled babies.

Miscarriages happened, limbs failed to develop properly, in some cases also eyes, ears and internal organs.

Baby born to a mother who had taken thalidomide while pregnant

No-one knows how many miscarriages the drug caused or how many worldwide victims of the drug there have been, but it's estimated that, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a range from 10,000 to 20,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities.[6]

This tragedy led to a revolution at the FDA regulatory authority: the requirement that all new drug applications should make a proof of efficiency for the targeted market application and should prove their safety for the consumer.

This change called the Kefauver-Harris Amendment is the start of the FDA approval in its modern form and is the reason why bringing new drugs to the market is such a long and difficult process. [7]

The Krebiozen scam: The imaginary cancer cure.

Following this tragedy, in 1963, Alma Hayden had to deal with major medical controversy.

In 1940s, Dr Andrew Invy and Dr Stephan Durovic claimed that to have discovered a new drug derived from distilled blood serum of horses, called Krebiozen, able to cure cancer.

Alma Levant Hayden

In 1963, Hayden and her colleagues were assigned the task to determine what the drug was and whether it had any therapeutic benefits in treating the disease.

Using infrared spectroscopy, and comparing images of over 20,000 known substances, Hayden proved that Krebiozen was in fact creatine, an amino acid, and a normal constituent of the human body. [8]

“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.'” [9]

Ivy and Durovic were brought to trial in 1964.[10]

Alma Levant Hayden died at 40 years old of liver cancer.


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

[1] Celebrating Black History Month with the father of organic agricultural science

[2] Celebrating Black History Month with Dr. Percy Lavon Julian,a pioneer in the chemistry of plant

[3] https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112079572084&view=1up&seq=24&q1=Hayden (last accessed on February 22nd, 2021)

[4] https://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i14/Black-Women-Chemistry-Pioneers.html (last accessed on February 22nd, 2021) [5] https://eje.bioscientifica.com/view/journals/eje/23/4/acta_23_4_001.xml (last accessed on February 22nd, 2021) [6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/health/thalidomide-survivors-usa.html (last accessed on February 22nd, 2021)

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kefauver_Harris_Amendment (last accessed on February 22nd, 2021) [8] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/alma-levant-hayden-first-black-woman-in-the-fda (last accessed on February 22nd, 2021)

[9] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/151/3714/1061 (last accessed on February 22nd, 2021) [10] https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-flashback-cancer-cure-krebiozen-quack-fraud-0930-20180925-story.html (last accessed on February 22nd, 2021)