Our historical figures to date in this class have consisted of men; some of you might feel therefore that Microbiology is “science for the guys.” Let’s make sure we dispel that opinion right here and now, and talk about the life and career of Rebecca Lancefield. Dr. Lancefield (1895-1981) was an American microbiologist who spent most of her career at the Rockefeller Institute in New York.
Wikipedia turns out to have very little in the way of a biography of Lancefield, who actually had a much more interesting life than that single paragraph would lead you to believe. She attended Wellesley College as an undergraduate, obtaining a degree in English literature, but was very interested in science after taking a bacteriology course. After finishing her degree, she taught science and math at a Vermont boarding school, but soon obtained a scholarship towards a graduate degree at Columbia University. She met her future husband, who was also a graduate student at Columbia, in the famous “fly room” of Thomas Hunt Morgan where many of the early studies of genetics were unraveled. She studied with Hans Zinsser, who was himself an eminent bacteriologist interested in the epidemiology and treatment of typhus. She also studied with Oswald Avery, who was one of the founders of molecular biology by determining that genes and chromosomes are made of DNA. She received her PhD in immunology and bacteriology in 1925.
It was near this time that Lancefield began her studies with hemolytic streptococci, and developed her methods for differentiating between patient isolates. As outlined in class, she assembled isolates from patients which differed by the types of antigens on their surfaces, and used these to immunize rabbits. The rabbits generated an antibody response to the bacterial surface antigens, and the antibodies were isolated from whole blood. Now, although we stated in class that proteins are the most effective antigens, due to their complex nature relative to other cellular macromolecules, the antigens of streptococci are actually carbohydrates, which further illustrates the point that essentially anything not found in the host can act to stimulate an immune response.
Her classification scheme continues to be in use today, and as discussed in class is the essential basis of the rapid strep test currently in use in primary care centers worldwide. Furthermore, she also recognized the link between superficial streptococcal infections and rheumatic fever, the dangerous, immunologically-derived sequelae of strep infections. She received many accolades and honors during her long career, and held many positions of scientific leadership including being the only female president of the American Association of Immunologists, a position she held in the early 1960’s. Interestingly, this source indicates that:
Rebecca Lancefield never developed much sympathy for the modern feminist’s point of view on women in science. She was not enthusiastic about honours that recognized her as the “first woman” to do this or that and preferred those that came without reference to her sex.
I suspect that like most premier scientists, she was really most interested in the science!
BONUS: In the comment thread, let’s start listing the Lancefield antigens (starting with A) and listing the organism/disease that corresponds to that antigen.