From the science labs of Goldspohn Hall in the early 1940s came a scientist who was featured in Time magazine and honored in Washington D.C. Dr. Mildred Rebstock was given much of the credit for finding a synthetic form of chloromycetin. At the time, antibiotics had to be grown slowly from molds and the rarity of chloromycetin (discovered in 1947) limited its widespread use in combating diseases like typhoid fever and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. That changed with Rebstock’s discovery in 1949.
“[Finding the synthetic form] allowed chloromycetin to be more widely available, and it’s a broad spectrum antibiotic used for many diseases,” says Rebstock, who lives in Ann Arbor, MI, not far from where she worked at Parke-Davis Research Labs (now Warner-Lambert, Parke-Davis). She was one of just a handful of women to be working as researchers at the time.
Rebstock is now nearing 90, and she says the specifics of the discovery aren’t as clear as they once were. But she does vividly remember receiving a Woman of the Year Award in 1950 from the Women’s National Press Club. To receive it, she traveled to Washington, D.C. “We honor this young Midwest scientist for her achievement in making a chemical identical to one of nature’s ‘wonder drugs,’ chloromycetin,” said President Harry Truman in presenting the award.
Recalls Rebstock about the prestigious event: “It was dreamy.”
Time magazine in 1949 ran her photo with an article about the discovery, noting that “the achievement was due to teamwork. But a large part of the credit goes to pretty Dr. Mildred Rebstock, a 28-year-old research chemist. She chose the field because ‘I just liked that sort of thing better than some others.’”
Indeed, Rebstock naturally gravitated to the sciences while at North Central, where she studied under I.A. Koten, professor of chemistry, and Harold Eigenbrodt, professor of zoology. She maintained a perfect grade-point average while majoring in chemistry and zoology. Both professors had earned their doctoral degrees at the University of Illinois and Rebstock was inspired to apply there for graduate work upon graduation. She received a full fellowship and researched ascorbic acid while at the university.
“I was always interested in science, even in high school in Elkhart [IN],” says Rebstock. During her career at Parke-Davis, she also researched the synthesis of blood lipid-lowering agents and fertility control.
She had chosen North Central College because two cousins had attended and because of her affiliation with an Evangelical Church. “My first memory of North Central is when my parents brought me a few days early and I was really homesick,” she recalls.
Living in Kaufman Hall, Rebstock soon found that she enjoyed playing sports through the Women’s Athletic Association on campus and she also remembers wearing a green beanie her freshman year—which she still owns. She was also involved with the zoology club and Beta Beta Beta, the biology honors society. And she clearly remembers the impact of her studies with Koten and Eigenbrodt and their role in her academic life. “They were both such good teachers.”
North Central Now will continue to profile distinguished science division alumni as the College shapes it vision for a 21st century science facility. We invite you to visit A Legacy of Science and view profiles of all of North Central College's scientific luminaries.
North Central NOW Fall 2009