A biochemist at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Edward Calvin Kendall, was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Medicine for his role in the discovery of the hormone cortisone on Oct 26th, 1950.
Along with his colleagues Drs. Philip Showalter Hench and Tadeus Reichstein, Dr. Kendall shares the prize for research that led to a breakthrough treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
The research began in the late 1920s when Hench, a rheumatologist at Mayo Clinic, hypothesized that a hormone from the adrenal gland could reduce inflammation in arthritis patients.
He enlisted the help of biochemist Kendall to isolate and identify the hormone.
Testing Compound E
Through painstaking research, Kendall was able to isolate several compounds from the adrenal gland, labeling them A through F.
Further testing revealed that Compound E showed particular promise in treating arthritis symptoms.
In a small clinical trial in 1948, Hench and colleagues injected Compound E into 14 patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis.
The results were remarkable, with patients reporting dramatic relief from pain and swelling within days. Once injections stopped, however, symptoms returned.
The temporary nature of the treatment led the researchers to dub Compound E “a repair hormone.”
Nobel Prize Awarded
The serendipitous discovery of cortisone catapulted the Mayo Clinic researchers to international acclaim.
In 1950, Kendall, Hench, and Reichstein were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine “for their discoveries relating to the hormones of the adrenal cortex, their structure and biological effects.”
Since the Nobel honor, cortisone and its derivatives have become standard treatments for inflammatory and autoimmune disorders like arthritis, asthma, and lupus.
Synthetic versions like prednisone have reduced side effects and enabled long-term treatment.
Lasting Impact of the Cortisone Discovery
While cortisone is not a cure, it has dramatically improved quality of life for millions of people worldwide. The once-obscure hormone is now hailed as one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 20th century.
Seventy years after Hench and Kendall’s pioneering work at Mayo Clinic, cortisone continues to be a vital drug in the fight against chronic inflammatory illness.
Their Nobel Prize-winning research illustrates the power of dedicated scientists asking big questions – and serendipity’s role in changing the course of medicine.