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Reflections on women in science -- diversity and discomfort

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Recruiting women for science, technology, engineering and maths: Sheryl Sorby at TEDxFulbrightDublin. Sheryl Sorby's talk, Recruiting women for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

The #SciWomen16 Summit. Here is what the women there had to say.

Heroines of Bacteriology

Women scientists and researchers have rocked the world of bacteriology and microbiology since they were able to get through the doors. Here are some stories of women who were doing just that at the end of the 18th and beginnings of the 19th Century at the Hygienic Laboratory, later the National Institutes of Health.

Ida Bengtson (1881-1952) was the first woman to be employed as a scientist. She took a position at the Public Health Service’s Hygienic Laboratory in 1916 at a salary of $1,800 per year.

Bengtson’s parents were Swedish immigrants. They lived in Harvard, Nebraska. Bengtson majored in mathematics and languages at the University of Nebraska and graduated in 1903. 

She did think being a cataloguer at the U.S. Geological Survey library was not so interesting, so she heeded the advice of a friend and went back to school for a MS and Ph.D. in bacteriology—the cutting edge of science at the time—and studied at the University of Chicago.

Bengtson was hired by Hygienic Laboratory director Dr. George McCoy. In 1917, she discovered that an outbreak of tetanus was linked to contaminated vaccine scarifiers. But Bengtson had many triumphs in her career: proving that an infantile paralysis was caused by a new variety of botulism, Clostridium botulinum (type C); aiding the development of the typhus vaccine; and developing the complement fixation test still in use for the detection and differentiation of rickettsial diseases like endemic and epidemic typhus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Q fever. 

She actually she came down with typhus herself during her research. But she was internationally recognized for her pioneering work. The thousands of women scientists at NIH owe Ida Bengtson a debt of gratitude because if Bengtson had not proved so adept, McCoy might not have continued to hire women scientists.

Alice Catherine Evans (1881-1975) was born in Neath, Pennsylvania and could not afford college. In fact, Evans, like many other early women scientists, began her career as a teacher (during that time one could become a teacher after high school as Evans did). 

In 1909, she received her BS in bacteriology from Cornell University and her MS from the University of Wisconsin in 1910. She never earned a Ph.D., which caused a delay in the acceptance of her research findings on brucellosis and milk—male scientists and milk manufacturers found it hard to believe a woman without a Ph.D at that time.

Evans began her federal civil service career in 1910 with the USDA. In 1913, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work in the newly completed laboratories of the USDA Dairy Division.

During her time in the division, her research in a particular species of bacteria played a pivotal role in the recognition of brucellosis as a significant public health problem and in the acceptance of the need to pasteurize milk to ensure its safety during times when hygiene standards were lower.

In 1918, she decided she would like to contribute to the war effort and inquired of the Hygienic Laboratory whether her services might be of use in connection with the war effort. She learned that a position in bacteriology was open in the Laboratory, applied, and was accepted for the job. She joined a team working to improve the serum treatment for meningitis.

Evans retired from the National Institute (later Institutes) of Health in 1945. She protested in 1966, at the age of 85, that the disclaimer of communist affiliation on the Medicare application violated her right of free speech. In January 1967, the Department of Justice conceded that this provision was unconstitutional. It was never enforced. She died in Virginia at the age of 94, but she wrote her her memoirs in 1963. They are well worth a read.

Sara Branham Matthews (1888-1962) was a member of the third generation of women graduates in her family. Sara Branham’s mother and grandmother had graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia before she did, in 1907. 

After teaching science in girls’ schools, Branham headed west to the University of Colorado. She then studied for a Ph.D. and M.D. at the University of Chicago, where she taught some of the up-and-coming women scientists who would later work with her at the NIH. She is credited with the discovery and isolation of the virus that causes spinal meningitis. There´s an article about her titled “Georgia-Born Woman Doctor Uncovers Cure for the Dread Germ of Meningitis” in the Atlanta Constitution on March 6, 1939, which stated “She killed millions of killers!” Sara Branham's papers are stored at the National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division. Dr. Branham, a United States Public Health Service scientist, became nationally known for her studies of infectious diseases and is considered one of the “grand ladies of microbiology.” In 1928, when Branham was forty, she was appointed to the National Institute of Health to study pathogens and investigate causes and cures for influenza. Soon she was also investigating salmonella, shigella, and diphtheria toxins. She became an expert on the chemotherapy of bacterial meningitis.Dr. Branham became the principal bacteriologist in 1950 and served as Chief of the Section on Bacterial Toxins in the Division of Biological Standards until retirement in 1958. 

Margaret Pittman (1901-1995) came by medicine early on, helping her rural doctor father in his Arkansas practice. She then attended the University of Chicago with money she had saved from teaching, and received a Ph.D. in 1928. She went to NIH in 1936, and worked with Dr. Sara Branham, who had taught her at the University of Chicago. She is recognized for her work on a pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. At the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, Pittman studied strains of H. influenzae isolated from infected patients. In 1936, she arrived at the National Institute of Health where her career path led her to become the first woman to hold the position of laboratory chief. She headed the Laboratory of Bacterial Products, Division of Biologics and Standards, from 1957 to 1971. Pittman isolated the influenza strain responsible for many cases of childhood meningitis, helped identify the cause of epidemic conjunctivitis, and made observations that led to the development of a Salmonella vaccine. In 1970, Margaret Pittman was recognized with the Federal Women's Award.