Alice Evans, A Pioneer for Women in Microbiology

March 30, 2023

Over the American Society for Microbiology’s 123 years of existence, only 21 women have served as president. The first name on that list is Alice Evans, M.S., who was elected in 1928 to lead what was then known as the Society of American Bacteriologists. Though her story is not as well-known as those of other pioneering women in science, her career achievements and seminal contributions to the fields of microbiology and public health have continued to serve as inspiration for those who have followed in her footsteps.

Who Is Alice Evans?

Alice Evans
Alice Evans, the first woman president of the American Society for Microbiology.
Source: Center for the History of Microbiology/ASM Archives.
Born in rural Pennsylvania in 1881, Evans began her scientific career at Cornell University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1909. After completing a master’s degree in bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Evans chose not to pursue a Ph.D. Instead, she landed a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working in the Bureau of Animal Industry’s Dairy Division.

It was there that Evans first began studying what was to become her legacy-defining work on bacterial contamination of milk. Danish veterinarian Bernhard Bang had identified a bacterium responsible for spontaneous abortions in cows in the late 19th century. Subsequent research demonstrated that this bacterium could be found in cow udders (and ultimately milk), suggesting a potential for infection of humans, though with unknown symptoms. Meanwhile, Scottish pathologist David Bruce had isolated a supposedly separate bacterial cause of undulant fever (sometimes referred to as Malta Fever), which was known to cause fever and muscle pain in humans.

A Research Breakthrough

Intrigued by these observations, Evans hypothesized that the same causative agent, eventually identified as Brucella abortus, was in fact responsible for both bovine and human diseases. To confirm her theory, Evans simultaneously infected pregnant lab animals with either the human or bovine strain and observed that both suffered spontaneous abortions. Antigen testing of blood serum from the separately-infected animals further confirmed the similarity of the microbial strains, providing additional support for her hypothesis.

Evans' findings also implied that humans could, in fact, get sick from drinking cow milk contaminated with B. abortus. In the early 1900s, pasteurization of milk was not common, due to its expense and the prevailing belief that the spread of a communicable disease, such as tuberculosis, could be prevented through routine observation and noninvasive diagnostics of cattle. Armed with her evidence, Evans put forth a logical, yet radical, suggestion: “Are we sure that cases of glandular disease, or cases of abortion or possibly diseases of the respiratory tract may not sometimes occur among human subjects in this country as a result of drinking raw cows' milk?”

After presenting her findings in 1917, Evans faced immediate skepticism and severe criticism from scientists, veterinarians and representatives from the milk industry, who dismissed the idea that she could have made a discovery that had escaped the observation of other (i.e. male) researchers. Certain in her results and flawless in her work, Evans persisted, despite a years-long effort to discredit her. Vindication arrived a few years later, when her findings were ultimately confirmed by other researchers.

Acceptance and Recognition

1928 ASM Meeting Minutes.
Meeting minutes from the Society for American Bacteriologist's 1927 meeting, announcing the election of Alice Evans as president for 1928.
Source: Center for the History of Microbiology/ASM Archives.
In recognition of her efforts, Evans was elected president of the Society of American Bacteriologists on December 30, 1927. Sadly, Evans was unable to attend her own installation as she was suffering from the effects of what is now referred to as brucellosis, which she had first contracted in 1922 in the course of her research. That dedication earned her additional praise from the Society leadership, who lauded her for “not only intellectual leadership but also personal heroism of the highest order in the common warfare of mankind against its microbial enemies.”

Evans continued to work on brucellosis, helping to normalize the use of pasteurization and codifying safety procedures that have greatly reduced the disease’s impact. She also conducted important work classifying different strains of streptococcus before finally hanging up her pipette for good in 1945. Evans stayed active in retirement, serving as honorary president of the Inter-American Committee on Brucellosis for a dozen years and publishing her memoirs. She passed away in 1975 at the age of 94.

Women as Leaders in STEM

The idea of a woman scientist in a leadership position was exceedingly rare in Evans’ time. By 1940, fewer than half of the approximately 50 professional scientific societies in existence in the U.S. had elected a woman president even once. Prominent organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and the American Chemical Society, both waited until the 1970s before doing so, while the first woman president of the National Academy of Sciences was only recently elected in 2016.

Despite its seemingly progressive election of Evans, ASM’s subsequent track record with respect to ensuring gender equality in leadership positions was painfully slow: over the next 5 decades, the society membership elected a mere 2 additional women presidents: Rebecca Lancefield, Ph.D. in 1943 and Helen Whiteley, Ph.D. in 1976.

Alice Evans and Rebecca Lancefield.
Alice Evans (left) with Rebecca Lancefield, the second woman president of ASM, at the 1964 ASM meeting.
Source: Center for the History of Microbiology/ASM Archives.

The dam finally broke in 1985 with the election of Rita Colwell, Ph.D. "There weren't too many of us until I became president,” stated Colwell, who subsequently spearheaded an effort to ensure that women were included as candidates in the society’s presidential nomination process. “It's interesting that we've had a series of women presidents ever since,” she pointed out. Indeed, 17 of the last 37 society presidents have been women, including current President Colleen Kraft, M.D., M.Sc. and President-Elect Virginia Miller, Ph.D.

The significance of following in Evans’ footsteps is not lost on her successors. “It’s important to recognize what got us here,” said Kraft. “And we should be always considering how women specifically contribute to leadership in a different way, so that all perspectives are balanced.”

Miller has similarly recognized the symbolic importance of her position. “I think seeing somebody who has a background like you be successful and find their place and make a mark can be a confidence boost.”

Recognizing Women

Alice C. Evans Award.
ASM has awarded the Alice C. Evans Award for Advancement of Women annually since 1983.
Source: ASM.
Realizing that Evans deserved a more direct form of appreciation, ASM’s Committee on the Status of Women in Microbiology helped establish the Alice C. Evans Award for Advancement of Women in 1983. The annual award recognizes outstanding contributions and service toward the full participation and advancement of women in the microbial sciences.

Ironically, the first recipient was a man: former ASM President Frederick C. Neidhardt, Ph.D., who was lauded as a champion of women in science. In the succeeding years, ASM has continued to celebrate Evans’ legacy by honoring the achievements of a succession of stellar scientists and mentors who have been visible and vocal champions for women.

2021 recipient Jennifer Glass, Ph.D., has been inspired by Evans to continue to lift up future generations of women in science. “Part of the reason that I got the award is that I love mentoring women and fostering early career advancement,” noted Glass. “I hope I continue on in the spirit of Alice.”

Meanwhile, an unanticipated impact of the award has simply been raising awareness about Evans and her achievements. “I felt it was a disservice to receive this award not knowing much about who it was honoring,” admitted 2022 recipient Gemma Reguera, Ph.D. “It was a revelation [to learn about] this typical story of lack of appreciation, and our inability to really acknowledge the seminal contributions of women.”

Learning about Evans and her story has also generated a sense of empathy amongst current generations of women microbiologists. “I relate to her because I did encounter my own level of discrimination,” said 2023 recipient Lorraine Findlay, Ph.D., MPH, M.S., SM-ASCP, PBT-ASCP. “She must have been amazing because she plowed through this kind of stuff way, way back.”

However, as in Evans’ time, there is more work to be done, especially with respect to recognizing and promoting minority scientists. As 2004 recipient Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., points out, “ASM did very well in uplifting women early, but not minorities.” ASM members elected the society’s first president from a historically underrepresented background, Alice Huang, Ph.D., in 1988, and its first black president, Clifford Houston, Ph.D., in 2007.

Inspiring Women

Anna Rader Agar Art image.
"Alice Catherine Evans Shines a Light on Pasteurization and Equality" by Cadet Anna Rader (Virginia Military Institute).
85 years after her term as president, nearly 50 years since her death and 40 years since the establishment of an award in her name, Evans continues to inspire scientists. Cadet Anna Rader, a junior biology major at the Virginia Military Institute, selected Evans as the subject of her entry for the 2022 Agar Art Contest. “I wanted to choose a woman,” acknowledged Rader, “because I know that especially back then, women were very overshadowed in what they were trying to accomplish.”

After discovering Evans and learning about her story, Rader knew she had found her muse. “I'm upset that I hadn’t known about her earlier because she made such a huge impact,” she said. Rader became determined to use her artistic talents to afford Evans the awareness she deserves. “The goal of my piece is for her to be recognized more,” explained Rader. “That really motivated me.”

A Lasting Impact

With her artwork, Rader also hopes to inspire others. “Many people don't think they belong, many people think that they're never going to succeed,” she pointed out. For Rader, Evans is the perfect example of overcoming these doubts. “She stands as a revolutionary for women in STEM.”

Such appreciation for Evans and what she accomplished is a shared feeling. “I wish I’d met her,” lamented Miller. “She must have had a lot of fortitude.” Colwell goes even further. “I think she deserves to be considered a hero,” she affirmed. “Absolutely.”

Author: Geoff Hunt, Ph.D.

Geoff Hunt, Ph.D.
Geoff Hunt earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton University.