Iconic Black Women in the History of Microbiology Research

March 9, 2023

Despite making substantial contributions to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) since the inception scientific research, women scientists have faced enormous challenges in the field. Surveys show that very few women scientists are well-known, and a great number of these scientists have been disregarded throughout history, simply because of their gender.

In the early days of scientific research, being a Black woman was more demanding because these scientists had to break twice as many barriers—racial discrimination and gender discrimination—albeit subtle in some climes. Even though tremendous progress has been made to alleviate biases in recent decades, women still deal with discrimination in STEM. It is not surprising that only a handful of Black women scientists have achieved widespread recognition in STEM.

This article highlights some of the renowned woman researchers in the history of microbiology who are of Black origin. People like Ruth Moore were microbiologists by profession, while others, like Mattiedna Johnson, were not, but worked actively in the field of microbiology at some time in their lives.

Ruth E. Moore (1903-1994)

Ruth Ella Moore.
Ruth Ella Moore.
Source: osu.edu
 Ruth E. Moore, Ph.D., was born in 1903 in Columbus, Ohio. She graduated from Ohio State University with a B.S. (1925), M.S. (1927) and a Ph.D. (1933) in bacteriology. During her Ph.D., Moore worked as a teacher at Tennessee State College in Nashville to raise funds for the completion of her studies. She studied Mycobacterium tuberculosis for her Ph.D. dissertation when tuberculosis (TB) was the second leading cause of death in the U.S. Moore’s research, including “A New Method of Concentration on the Tubercule Bacilli as Applied to Sputum and Urine Examination,” which introduced a faster and easier method of isolating the bacilli for improved diagnosis and treatment, was extremely resourceful in the mitigation of the TB crisis in the U.S. and was referenced in many innovative articles on M. tuberculosis. She was the first Black woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in the field of natural sciences and the first Black scientist, irrespective of gender, to be awarded a Ph.D. in bacteriology.

Moore went on to join Hildrus A. Poindexter’s research group at Howard University Medical School, following her Ph.D. graduation. She also engaged in other research work, including projects comparing ABO, MN and Rh blood types between African Americans and Caucasians, as well as projects dealing with the gut microbiome and dental caries.

Moore became the first Black woman to join ASM in 1936 and faced the gross challenge of restricted attendance privileges at ASM general meetings due to Jim Crow laws. She was also an active member of the American Society of Immunology, the American Association of Science and the American Public Health Association. Moore served for 5 years as the Chair of Microbiology Department at Howard University Medical School after Poindexter.

Moore retired in 1971 and became professor emerita at Howard University Medical School. Apart from her research and academic prowess, she was a talented seamstress. She died on July 19, 1994.

Mattiedna Johnson (1918-2003)

Mattiedna Johnson.
Mattiedna Johnson.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
 Mattiedna Johnson was born on April 7, 1918, in Amite County, Miss. to sharecroppers. She graduated from Jane Terrell Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Memphis and went on to complete the medical technology program at Northwest Institute of Medical Technology in Minneapolis in 1943. In 1944, she started working as a laboratory technician at University of Minnesota's Department of Plant Pathology, where she researched penicillin.

The extent of the antibacterial abilities of penicillin after its discovery in 1928 remained unknown to scientists at the time. During the war, research on penicillin and streptomycin, among other antibiotics, were a priority to the U.S. military, and Johnson’s laboratory was in a key position to be one of the research facilities funded for penicillin research.

Unknown to the public, Johnson was the only Black scientist working in the penicillin research lab. She was also the only lab technician who had prior training working with the compound. Growing up on an Arkansas farm equipped Johnson with the insight to source mold from tomato soup. Testing her tomato soup mold, which she later named Terrible Mice mold, on the scarlet fever bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes yielded promising outcome.

Johnson noted in her self-published diary that she recommended, to her superior in the laboratory, John Ehrlich, suspending the Terrible Mice mold into syrup as medication. She believed that this recommendation led to the production of Terramycin syrup, and she was not given due recognition for that. Her claims were considered untrue, as there was an assertion that the mold used in Terramycin syrup originated from a soil specimen from Terre Haute, Ind. and was patented, not by Ehrlich, but by Pfizer in 1949 (5 years later). Pfizer acknowledged that Johnson was a part of the Penicillin Project. However, she was never compensated for her work in medicine.

Johnson continued her nursing profession after this research and later co-found the National Black Nurses Association. On Oct. 23, 1990, she was honored in a speech to the House of Representatives for her accomplishments. She died at the age of 85 in December 2003.

Jessie Isabelle Price (1930-2015)

Jessie Isabelle Price.
Jessie Isabelle Price.
Source: Association for Women in Science
Jessie Price, Ph.D., was a veterinary microbiologist born in Montrose, Pa. on Jan. 1, 1930. Due to financial burden, she deferred acceptance into Cornell University and took another year of high school classes in advanced English and mathematics. This constraint was immediately mitigated by a tuition waiver, which allowed her to pursue a degree in veterinary microbiology. She received her B.S. (1953), M.S. (1958) and Ph.D. (1959) in microbiology at Cornell University.

Price worked as a poultry disease research farm laboratory technician (1953-1956) and a research assistant at Cornell University’s New York State Veterinary College to fund her graduate studies. Following her Ph.D. dissertation on the incidence of Pasteurella anatipestifer infection in white Pekin (Long Island) ducklings, she became a pioneering veterinary microbiologist, who innovated functional methods to ameliorate microbial diseases and mortality rate in ducks.

Price created 2 avian vaccines that were commercialized in Canada and the Midwest U.S. She also discovered that the increased mortality rate in Pekin duck populations was attributable to infection with the bacteria Escherichia coli and Pasteurella multocida, and the Duck Hepatitis virus (DHV). Use of the avian vaccines that Price developed was not restricted to ducks alone, as they were also used by commercial turkey and pigeon farmers.

Price’s tremendous success in avian disease research led to ASM recommending her for a National Science Foundation travel grant award to present her ground-breaking findings at the International Congress for Microbiology, held in Moscow in 1966. In 1969, she started lecturing microbiology at Mitchell College of Long Island University in New York state and became an adjunct assistant professor in 1976. She also taught Earth sciences at University of Southampton.

Price transitioned to studying environmental contaminants and diseases in wildlife, with emphasis on waterfowl, upon moving to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. in 1977. She was an active ASM member, who worked in various capacities, including as chair of the Summer Research Fellowship and Travel Award Program and Predoctoral Minority Fellowship Ad Hoc Review Committee, member of the Committee on the Status of Minority Microbiologists and Committee on the Status of Women Microbiologists. She also served as the national second vice-president, national president and member of the national board of directors of Sigma Delta Epsilon (Graduate Women in Science) between 1972 and 1980. Price died on Nov. 12, 2015, in Madison, N.Y., as a result of chronic Lewy Body Disease/Alzheimer’s Disease.

Carolyn Branch Brooks (1946 to present)

Carolyn Branch Brooks.
Carolyn Branch Brooks.
Source: Wicomico Environment Trust
 Carolyn Branch Brooks was born on July 8, 1946, in Richmond, Va. She was inspired to become a microbiologist after attending summer school at Virginia Union University in Richmond as a high school student. Brooks won 6 undergraduate scholarships and chose to study microbiology at Tuskegee University, Ala. She graduated with a B.S. in 1968 and worked briefly at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Alabama, before commencing her Ph.D. studies at Ohio State University.

Brooks’ dissertation focused on how guardian cells (T-cells) in the blood attack and destroy invading microbes. Brooks graduated in 1977 and, after working for 3 years at Kentucky State University, Frankfort, joined as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) in Princess Anne, Md. in 1981. At UMES, her research interest was agricultural productivity, with special interest in genetic engineering, agricultural practices and microbial relationships, including the relationship between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and the legume family. Between 1984 and 1985, Brooks studied how to increase the yield of African groundnut in Senegal and Togo, West Africa; her efforts would pave the way for increased productivity of a variety of food crops in West Africa. She also conducted research in Cameroon, Egypt and Nigeria.

As a member of the U.S. Agency for International Development—U.S. Department of Agriculture (USAID-USDA), Brooks established research collaborations with South African universities and research centers. She became a full professor of microbiology at UMES. Administratively, she served as the department chair, the dean of the School of Agriculture and Natural Science (1994), as an executive assistant to the university’s president and chief of staff and as the research director of 1890 Land-Grant Programs, until her retirement in 2016.

Brooks won multiple awards throughout her career, including the 2013 George Washington Carver Public Service Hall of Fame Award from the Professional Agricultural Workers Conference, and the award given to professors for exemplary achievements as educators, researchers and role models at the 1988 annual White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Shanta Corbett (1986 to present)

Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Shanta Corbett
Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Shanta Corbett
Source: The New York Times
 Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Shanta Corbett was born to Rhonda Corbett, on January 26, 1986, in Hurdle Mills community, Person County, N.C. She graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) with a B.S. degree in biological sciences and sociology then worked alongside Barney S. Graham for 3 years as a biological sciences trainer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). During this period, Corbett worked on a number of projects, including one focused on innovative vaccine platform advancement, which would play a key role in her later career.

As part of her Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina, Corbett studied the role of human antibodies in dengue virus pathogenesis in Sri Lanka. She had longtime lab experience working at different locations with various researchers, including James Morken, Gloria Viboud and Susan Dorsey. Corbett earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology in 2014 and proceeded with postdoctoral research at NIH Vaccine Research Center (VRC), studying viral immunology, pathogenesis and host immunity.

Focusing on Coronaviridae, her effort to develop coronavirus vaccines hinged on previous research on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses. Collaborating with Dartmouth college and Scripps Research Institute, her team concentrated on stabilizing the spike proteins which attach to the ACE-2 receptor of the lung cell membrane, thus orchestrating a stronger antibody defense and preventing coronavirus entry.

Corbett was undeniably a key player on the forefront of the global trials to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 (the causative agent of COVID-19). Her team worked with Moderna Inc. to develop mRNA vaccines that proved to be above 90% effective at preventing severe COVID-19. In 2021, she was highlighted as an innovator in the Time100 Next list. She was later assigned by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu to the city’s COVID-19 advisory committee. Corbett is currently an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Shutzer Assistant Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

Recognizing the ground-breaking achievements of more ingenious women scientists of African ancestry will be instrumental in realizing the diversity, equity and inclusion goal of STEM, and encouraging the innovative striving of younger scientists.

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Author: N. Confidence Anyanwu, Ph.D.

N. Confidence Anyanwu, Ph.D.
Nneoma Confidence Anyanwu, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow at New York Medical College.