The clear ampul was small — no bigger than a thumb — but it contained what may have been the most controversial substance in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s: Krebiozen.
What exactly was Krebiozen? That’s what Alma Levant Hayden had to find out.
Hayden was a chemist at the Food and Drug Administration and an expert in using high-tech tools to determine the composition of chemical compounds. A native of South Carolina, she had received her master’s degree at Howard University and was one of the first female African American scientists to work in Washington, first at the National Institutes of Health and then at FDA.
She may have been the very first at FDA. In 1946, an official there noted that no black scientists were employed at the agency. The reason? While the FDA was opposed to racial discrimination, its researchers occasionally had to testify in trials.
“A colored person might prejudice the case in court, in certain sections of the country,” the official said. (Cornell historian Margaret W. Rossiter tells the story in her book “Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972.”)
The men who provided the curious ampul were Stevan Durovic and Andrew C. Ivy. Both were doctors. Durovic was originally from Yugoslavia. In the early years of World War II, he and his brother, Marko — part owner of a munitions company — had fled that Central European country and settled in Argentina.
It was there that Stevan vowed to cure cancer. Noticing that some tumors afflicting horses and cattle occasionally disappeared spontaneously, he injected horses with Actinomyces bovis, the bacterium that causes a condition called “lumpy jaw.” From these horses’ blood serum, he distilled a white powder. He called it Krebiozen, which he said was Greek for “that which regulates growth.”
The Durovic brothers filled thousands of ampuls with the white powder and moved to Chicago, where they thought the cancer “cure” had a greater chance of being noticed than in Buenos Aires.
And noticed it was, by a well-known figure in the city’s medical establishment. Andrew Ivy had chaired the physiology and pharmacology department at Northwestern before being named vice president of the University of Illinois. It was Ivy who inspired the mass tattooing of schoolchildren with their blood types in two communities in Indiana and Utah in 1952. (While testifying at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, Ivy had noticed that members of Hitler’s Waffen-SS had blood-type tattoos.)
Durovic and Ivy began administering Krebiozen and, at an unconventional news conference at the Drake Hotel, claimed it had eliminated tumors and eased pain in 20 of 22 patients.
In July 1952, Harry S. Truman signed a bill granting permanent residence to the Durovic brothers and their families, who had entered the country in 1949 and overstayed their six-month visitors’ permits.
The medical establishment was not convinced that Krebiozen worked — no rigorous double-blind trials had been done. Besides, what was it?
That’s where Hayden and her colleagues came in. With seemingly great reluctance, Durovic and Ivy supplied a few samples of the drug, though in such tiny quantities that at first, federal researchers weren’t sure it could be tested.
On Sept. 3, 1963, in the laboratory of the FDA’s Spectrophotometric Unit, not far from the Mall, Hayden opened the sealed vial in the presence of other experts assembled by the government. The proceedings had the air of a trial, and, indeed, the battle over Krebiozen was to land many of the principal players in court for years.
Hayden carefully removed a microgram portion of the substance inside and mixed it with a potassium bromide solution. She placed this in an infrared spectrometer, a device that uses infrared light to trace a chemical fingerprint of a compound.
With the trace made, Hayden compared it with known chemicals until she found a match. The result? Krebiozen was creatine, which the FDA described as “an amino acid derivative plentifully available from meat in the ordinary diet.” Creatine is a normal constituent of the human body, readily — and cheaply — available anywhere laboratory chemicals are sold.
It was not a cure for cancer, and Krebiozen could not be marketed as such.
Many cancer patients and their families were furious at what they saw as the medical-industrial complex’s dismissal of Krebiozen. Some marched in front of the White House. “We want to live,” read one protester’s sign. “Krebiozen is our lifeline!”
The drug foreshadowed the debate over later miracle cures, such as laetrile in the 1970s.
Alma Hayden wasn’t around for that. She died in 1967, leaving behind two children — Michael and Andrea — and her husband, Alonzo, a biochemist. She was 40.
The cause of her death? Cancer.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
Do you have a question about the Washington area? Send it to email@example.com.