In celebration of International Women's Day – March 8 – we are delighted to feature this guest-authored post.
International Women's day is all about embracing equity! So, we'd love to share some of the amazing women throughout history and around the world that overcame hardships, fought for their rights to be scientists, and embraced equity! Their contributions to other microbiologists, to their communities, to women in STEM, have helped pave the way for the brighter future we live in today. While we still have a collective journey to fully reach inclusion in microbiology, these international scientists helped forge the path of making science careers more obtainable for women everywhere!
Several courageous women throughout history have overcome the bias of their day to significantly influence the field of microbiology. On this International Women's Day, we celebrate some of our favorite ones!
Very few women rose to the top of the Soviet Union scientific community, but Zinaida Yermolyeva was determined! Born in Russia, Zinaida Yermolyeva is credited as the "Mother of Soviet Antibiotics" and is fondly remembered as "Madame Penicillin." She was instrumental in the development of therapeutic uses of phages and penicillin in the Soviet Union, likely saving many lives during World War II. Talk about bravery, although some would say recklessness, Zinaida made some of her discoveries on phage therapy by experimenting on herself. She drank a solution of Vibrio cholerae and nearly died, but eventually recovered and gained new knowledge on how to treat cholera. Later, Ermolyeva and her lab assistant Tamara Balezina were sent to Stalingrad during the battle against Hitler's Sixth Army. Conditions were horrific asthey struggled to identify molds that would be effective against infectious bacteria as they had read about in papers by Sir Alexander Fleming. They ended up finding an isolate while in a dank air-raid shelter in a crack in the wall. This Penicillium led to the mass production of first Soviet-made penicillin. Zinaida also took charge of the ravaged scene and through organizing sanitation protocols likely helped to save the city. She was clearly a force to be reckoned with and one can only imagine the scene of this woman taking charge in a war zone and saving the day. Her efforts were later lauded as part of the reason for winning the war! Zinaida was the inspiration for Tatiana, a character in Veniamin Kaverin's trilogy Open Book which popularized microbiology as a career choice for girls in the Soviet Union. She was honored with a Google Doodle on October 24, 2018, for her remarkable career and inspiration to young girls to pursue science careers.
Margaret Jane Pittman 1901−1995.
There are few female scientists who were more influential to microbiology than Margaret Jane Pittman. She not only worked with some of the world's worst infectious diseases of the 20th century – including, cholera, whooping cough, tetanus, typhoid, meningitis, and conjunctivitis – but she collaborated with some of the best scientists of the time to advance our understanding of microbiology and diseases. Margaret got her scientific start working with her father, who was a physician, by assisting him at his rural practice in Arkansas, often surprising patients by administering anesthesia for procedures! In 1926, she won a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. It was then that she began a career that would prove that women certainly have much to contribute to the world of microbiology.
She played an important role at the National Institute of Health (NIH) and all around the world at various universities and health agencies, studying infectious diseases and collaborating on vaccine development. During her lifetime, she published over 100 articles before her retirement in 1971. Even though she lived in a time before "publish or perish" was a slogan among scientists, she felt this pressure was changing researchers' motivation.
Born in 1903, Ruth Ella Moore would live through both the Women's Rights and the Civil Rights movements in the United States. When she was young, no one envisioned that she would become the first Black American to receive a Ph.D. in Bacteriology. She was also the first Black member of the American Society of Microbiology. Rising through the ranks, she became the Head of the Department of Bacteriology at Howard University Medical College. To be more inclusive of the microbial world she renamed the department to Microbiology!
An unstoppable researcher, Ruth Ella Moore studied some of the worst diseases that plague humanity including tuberculosis. Dental caries, antibiotics, blood types, the gut microbiome, and immunology are a just a few of the other topics she was passionate about. Dr. Moore did face sexism and racism in her career though, as she was segregated at conference meetings in separate hotels. And she endures other slights, like not becoming a tenured professor. But Ruth Ella Moore was resilient and lived into her 90s having made many contributions to microbiology and witnessing much progress in her lifetime. There's more to love about Ruth, she was also a talented seamstress and passionate fashionista, making her own clothes from everyday wear to formal evening outfits.
Jane Hinton was the daughter of the well-respected microbiologist William Augustus Hinton, Harvard's first black professor. William was very adamant that his daughters receive a great education to the point that he moved his family to Europe, where he believed racism and sexism would be less prominent in his daughters' educational journeys. Jane was an active girl, constantly participating in extracurricular activities like orchestra, theater, glee, basketball, and student government positions. It was clear from an early age she had the charisma and motivation to make a mark in American history. Jane became a research assistant to John Howard Mueller at Harvard Medical School. Together they developed the Mueller-Hinton Agar in 1941, a culture medium still used in laboratories today to determine antibiotic resistance. Rare for the time, Jane never married and never had children. She retired at age 41 and spent the rest of her life doing what she loved, gardening and caring for her pets. She died in 2003 at 83 years old.
(Small Things Considered featured Jane Hinton earlier here.)
Jessie Isabelle Price 1930−2015.
Did you eat any eggs this week? If you did, you might have Jessie Isabelle Price to thank! Jessie was an American veterinary microbiologist, and her animal of choice was the duck. Although we may not realize it, maintaining healthy avian livestock is a crucial part of our food supply and vital for keeping food prices reasonable. In the 1950s, the bacterium Riemerella anatipestifer killed 10-30% of ducklings and, in 1964, it was estimated this pathogen cost the industry about $250,000 (in 2023 dollars thats more than $2 million). Jessie was not only able to isolate this bacterium, but she also developed a vaccine – initially injectable and later oral – against the disease. In addition to R. anatipestifer, Price also researched avian cholera and tuberculosis. She was the Chair of the Predoctoral Minority Fellowship Ad Hoc Review Committee of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), as well as the chair of the ASM's Summer Research Fellowship and Travel Award Program. In her free time, she enjoyed breeding Corgis, photography, music, and traveling. She died of Alzheimer's disease just a few years ago in 2015.
Where would we be today?
Imagine a world where these women's contributions were never realized. Now imagine our world if every possible science mind had a chance to contribute to scientific research throughout history. Unfortunately, we can't go back and find those smart women who perhaps could have changed our scientific trajectory but were unable to due to the prejudices of their time. Women are very much still working to overcome inequity in all areas, including science and academia. We can however learn lessons from the courageous women who did break through in their time to become celebrated contributors to science.
Women and other marginalized groups must be encouraged and supported to flourish in their scientific endeavors. As we turn to the microbial world to uncover ways to prevent disease, connect microbiomes to our health and that of the planet to ensure our future, we will need the best minds from all walks of life and employ the persistence and bravery shown by the women who persevered in a field they were not always welcomed in.
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Microbigals is a science communication business that loves to show that everyone and everything has their own unique microbe moment. Tess Deyett, Ph.D., is a passionate bioinformatician with a decade of experience in microbiology and microbial genetics. Jon Mitchell is a microbiome researcher at a pharmaceutical company with a master's in microbiology. Julie Grubaugh is a Senior Application Analyst in the healthcare industry and a mycophile. Together they are Microbigals, a blog and science podcast for the microbially enthused.