Browsing through the most notable names in the history of microbiology, you could be fooled into thinking there were no female scientists working in ground-breaking fields such as antibiotic studies, bacteriology, or virology in the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, laboratories did employ women, though male scientists often thought of them as supplemental parts of teams working in a highly technical field, not contributing much in the way of impact. However, a closer look at the history of microbiology shows how women were actively involved in several important discoveries.
Marjory Stephenson, born in 1885 near Cambridge, England, was instrumental in investigating bacterial metabolism, the biochemical reactions that occur within bacteria to allow them to live and reproduce. She realised that investigation of bacteria would help towards our understanding of cell biology in general. Her book Bacterial Metabolism, published in 1930, become essential reading for biologists and biochemists. Stephenson wasn’t just an excellent researcher, but also a leading educator, actively promoting training in microbiology, and co-founding the Society for General Microbiology – eventually becoming its second president.
When Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin, humanity hoped to eliminate many infectious diseases. Unfortunately, Fleming’s mould strain could not produce enough penicillin for mass production. It was a little known American, Mary Hunt, who decided the future of antibiotic production. The Northern Regional Research Laboratory in Illinois hired Hunt as an expert in moulds, the lab later collaborating with the University of Oxford to find the best penicillin producer. Hunt was known at local markets as the weird woman looking for mouldy produce, and eventually found the strain which led to mass penicillin production (Penicillum chrysogenum) on a cantaloupe melon in 1943. As a result, Mary Hunt became folk legend Mouldy Mary.
While penicillin helped combat widespread infections like bacterial meningitis and pneumonia, it was ineffective against gram-negative bacteria and that which caused tuberculosis. In 1944, a team of scientists from Rutgers University discovered streptomycin, the first antibiotic active against tuberculosis that wasn’t toxic to humans. One author of the paper written about their discovery was Elizabeth Bugie. However, the other male researchers didn’t include Bugie’s name on the patent for streptomycin telling her it wasn’t important for her name to be listed, as one day she would “get married and have a family”. In her time at Rutgers, Bugie also researched other antimicrobial substances and her work formed the basis of early antibiotic studies. Bugie was not the only female microbiologist who contributed to the acceleration of antibiotic development at Rutgers. Elizabeth Horning, Doris Jones, Christine Reilly, Dorris Hutchinson, and Vivian Schatz also worked during the golden age of antibiotic discovery (1950 – 1970), where half of the antibiotics commonly used today were developed.
English parasitologist Ann Bishop entered Girton College at Cambridge University in 1922. She remained there for most of her working life despite early hardships – including being forced to sit on the first aid box at departmental tea. She was part of the Molteno Institute (eventually becoming its director), one of the first labs to study malaria and its treatment. Bishop predicted that malaria parasites would develop resistance after prolonged exposure to drugs, her work on cross-resistance of antimalarial drugs significantly improving malaria therapy in the 1950s.
It was difficult for researchers to identify and investigate viruses, due to their particularly small size, before the pioneering work of June Almeida. Born in Scotland in 1930, Almeida had no official academic qualifications, but became an experienced technician and electron microscopy expert. Her technique made it possible to obtain a much more detailed look at the structures of viruses, and resulted in the first visualisations of rubella and hepatitis A in the 1970s. Almeida was an innovator as well as an educator, with the unique ability to unlock seemingly complex problems with simple solutions. Her collaborations with other virologists led to the discovery of countless other viruses.
These examples are just a small glance at female involvement in the history of microbiology. A look at any university archive will lead to many more. Female microbiologists many not have had professor or doctor in front of their names, instead listed as laboratory assistants or technicians, but in many cases their skills were critical for numerous notable discoveries. It is worth reminding ourselves who they are and how they changed the world for good, without expecting to receive the recognition that was rightfully theirs.
Featured image credit: “British women working in chemical laboratory near Manchester, 1914” by University of British Columbia Library. Public Domain via Flickr.