On this day in 1944, chemist Lewis Hastings Sarett succeeded in a 2-year quest to synthesize the hormone cortisone, a potent anti-inflammatory. Born in 1917, Sarett joined Merck Research Laboratories in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1942. Because Merck was participating in a government project to improve military medicine, Sarett began to work on a substance, called Compound E, which was suspected to play a role in rheumatoid arthritis, Addison's disease, and other adrenal diseases.
Four years after Sarett synthesized Compound E, now called cortisone, scientists at the Mayo Clinic used it to successfully treat rheumatoid arthritis, a malady in which immune cells gone awry attack the body's own tissue. The adrenal glands, it was later shown, regulate blood levels of some immune cells, in addition to helping govern metabolism and water balance. In 1949, Sarett and several collaborators dramatically cut the drug's cost by concocting cortisone from cheap raw materials--coal, lime, air, and water--rather than bile acids or plants. Cortisone in recent years has fallen into disuse, as scientists have favored related compounds that lack side effects such as swelling.
Sources: The National Inventors Hall of Fame, Encyclopedia Britannica, Nobel Foundation.