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The First Century of Women in Vaccine Science: 1900-1930s (Part 1)

Women scientists have had pivotal and leading roles in developing Covid vaccines and been celebrated for it – from Katalin Karikó’s role in mRNA technology and the BNT-Pfizer vaccine and Kizzmekia Corbett from the NIH for Moderna’s, to Chen Wei for CanSino and Sinopharm, Sarah Gilbert (Oxford-AstraZeneca), and more; with a spectacular roster of women scientists leading the clinical trials, too.

The odds have historically been dramatically stacked against women gaining access to science education and research careers, though, and if they did get through, against getting credit for their contributions – and then against being celebrated, too. All of which makes those who did achieve important breakthroughs and prominence all the more impressive. In this series, I’m highlighting outstanding women in vaccine science or immunology related to vaccine development in the 20th century. And there are some milestones for women in immunology more generally, too. I’d be delighted to hear about who I’m missing, too.

1895-1905: Anna Wessels Williams isolated a high-yield diphtheria strain, and developed a rabies vaccine and rabies test

In 1887, Williams was a school teacher in New Jersey when her sister nearly died in childbirth, and her baby was stillborn. She was so distressed by the ineffective treatment, that she enrolled to study medicine at the Women’s Medical College in New York – she was taught there by Elizabeth Blackwell. Williams added on training in Europe, returning to New York to work at the Health Department’s Diagnostic Laboratory – she stayed there her whole career.

At the time there was a diphtheria outbreak, but people couldn’t get access to treatment because it was too hard to manufacture to scale. Williams worked with her boss, William Park, to try to find a higher-yield diphtheria toxin to use for manufacturing anti-toxin therapy. While he was on vacation she isolated the strain that would work, from a person with a mild case of tonsillar diphtheria – it was named the Park-Williams strain. The serum was soon in production and distributed free in the U.S. and U.K. It’s used today to develop vaccines. She also co-authored a textbook and an influential book for the general public with Park.

On a sabbatical in Paris, Williams developed a rabies vaccine, and back in New York, a rabies test. She also identified brain cell abnormalities, around the same time as an Italian pathologist – he published first, and they’re named after him. Williams worked on the influenza pandemic, and later she also developed a test for trachoma.

Williams served as the President of the Women’s Medical Association (1915), argued for equal rights for women, and was adventurous: she loved pre-World War I planes, often flying in them with stunt pilots, and was famous for accumulating many speeding tickets in the streets of New York.

1918: Martha Wollstein published her paper showing influenza was not caused by bacteria – and joined the battle to understand the influenza causing the great pandemic

Martha Wollstein (1868-1939) was the daughter of German immigrants, born in New York. She also studied at the New York Women’s Medical College, graduating with her M.D. in 1889 and became the Babies’ Hospital’s pathologist. She worked concurrently at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

In 1903 she isolated Shiga bacillus from patients with dysentery, and she also published work on TB in babies. When the influenza pandemic broke out in 1918, it was believed that a particular bacillus caused it – then it was called Pfeiffer’s bacillus (now that’s called Haemophilus influenza): Wollstein demonstrated that it didn’t. That year, she also published an influential paper on the etiology of mumps.

All up, she published more than 60 papers, was the first female member elected to the American Pediatric Society, and served as the head of the pediatric section of the New York Academy of Science.

1925: Immunologist Florence Rena Sabin became the first woman elected to the U.S. National Academy of Science
Florence Rena Sabin (via Wikimedia Commons)

Florence Sabin (1871-1953) was born in Colorado, with a mining engineer who lived with his family at the mine he worked. Her schoolteacher mother died of puerperal fever (sepsis) when she was 6 or 7, and Sabin and her sister moved first to Chicago to live with an uncle, then the uncle and girls moved to the family farm in Vermont. Her father had always wanted to be a doctor like one of this ancestors, but couldn’t: his daughter picked up that dream, too.

Sabin studied a variety of aspects of anatomy and TB. It was her work on blood vessels that earned her membership of the National Academy of Science. The photo below shows Sabin at Johns Hopkins in 1896 – she became the University’s first medical professor. She retired to Colorado in 1938 and was appointed by the governor to chair a subcommittee on health – she said he thought an old lady wouldn’t cause much trouble. She did. Her public health activism kicked up a storm and laws that resulted were called the Sabin Health Laws. Johns Hopkins named a College after her.

1930: Sara Branham isolated the meningococci that caused an epidemic of untreatable cerebrospinal meningitis – a strain would eventually be named after her
Sara Elizabeth Branham at the National Institutes of Health in 1938 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Sara Branham (1888-1962) was born in Georgia to a family deeply committed to higher education for women – her mother and her grandmother were College graduates, and both her grandfathers taught at Emory College. (You’ll see her called Sara Branham Matthews, but she didn’t use her married name professionally.) In 1907 she graduated from Wesleyan College with a BA in biology, a third generation alumna.

With few opportunities for women, though, she became a schoolteacher. During the shortage of men in World War I, the University of Colorado hired her to teach bacteriology. She got a second degree, and said, “When the war was over, I was too deep in bacteriology to ever get out again”. During the influenza pandemic, she moved to Chicago, doing graduate studies in influenza and earning her PhD.

In 1927, she moved to the NIH and stayed there for the rest of her career. An untreatable form of meningitis had arrived in the U.S. and was spreading quickly. In 1930 she published a paper identifying the meningoccal strain causing the disease. Branham also found that sulfonamide drugs could help, which pointed the way for others to develop the treatment.

In 1970, Neisseria catarrhalis was renamed Branhamella caterrhalis in her honor.

The NIH Division of Biologics Control in 1938, with both Sarah Branham and Margaret Pittman (via Wikimedia Commons)
1931: Margaret Pittman published her paper identifying strains of Haemophilus Influenza B – before she was 30 years old
Photo of Margaret Pittman in the lab
Margaret Pittman around 1937 in a lab at the National Institutes of Health (via Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret Jane Pittman (1901-1995) was born in Arkansas. Her father was a doctor, and she’d go to work with him sometimes. When he died when she was around 18, her mother mother worked as dressmaker and selling canned fruit and vegetables to get her and her 2 siblings through College. She graduated with a BA in biology and mathematics in 1925, saved money working as a teacher so she could do graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Her PhD, undertaken while working at the Rockefeller, addressed the riddle of whether Haemophilus caused influenza (it doesn’t): she identified a second strain, Haemophilus Influenzae b, and her work opened the way to vaccine for Hib. Pittman’s paper on this breakthrough was published in 1931.

In 1934, the Depression led to her job being cut. When Roosevelt expanded the health research budget for the government in 1935, that was her chance. She moved to the NIH, working with Sara Branham, who had been one of her teachers in Chicago. Together, they introduced the Reed-Münch statistical test into testing biologics. Pittman worked on blood transfusion-related studies during World War 2, and then led the development of standards for pertussis vaccine. She was the first woman to head a laboratory at the NIH. During the 1960s, she worked on vaccines globally, directing a cholera research laboratory in what’s now Bangladesh, advancing knowledge on both vaccine and treatment.

Among other awards, there’s an NIH lectureship in Pittnam’s name. To recognize her mother’s contribution to her and her siblings’ education, she established the Virginia A. McCormick Pittman Distinguished Professorship at Hendrix College in Arkansas.

On to part 2…


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