Contributions of women to bacteriology: Blog for International Women’s Day 2021

Bacterial Genetics and Genomics book Discussion Topic: Chapter 21, question 16

For these blogs I have not been including the wording of the end of chapter questions from Bacterial Genetics and Genomics. Instead, I have blogged about the general theme of these question, often highlighting a research article on the topic.

However, today (8th March 2021) is International Women’s Day and the very last self-study end of chapter question in the book is very relevant:

“Esther Lederberg discovered lambda (λ) bacteriophages and described lysogeny. She also made other contributions to microbiology and microbial techniques that contributed to bacterial genetics and genomics. The study of λ provided insight that was extrapolated across the field of genetics. Explore and discuss the contributions made by Esther Lederberg and at least one other scientist who made important contributions, but may not be well known, perhaps due to gender or race.”

Photograph of Prof. Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg wearing a lab coat and standing in a laboratory.
Photograph of Prof. Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg wearing a lab coat and standing in a laboratory. http://www.estherlederberg.com/ColleaguesIndex.html

Prof. Lederberg is mentioned more than once in the book, having been instrumental in the discovery of not only lambda (λ) bacteriophages, but also description of F factor in bacteria and development of the replica plating technique. I encourage you to look for more information about Prof. Lederberg and her various contributions to microbiology.

Another woman I would like to discuss in this blog is Jane Hinton. There are some bacterial growth media with interesting names, including Mueller-Hinton agar as well as a range of other broths and agars that are all obviously named after someone. We don’t often think about the people who took their time and effort to develop these valuable and essential resources that enable us to do the fundamental aspect of our work – culturing bacteria. Most of my research is on Neisseria gonorrhoeae and Jane Hinton was involved in creating the Mueller-Hinton media that was instrumental in making culturing of N. gonorrhoeae practical.

Portrait photograph of Dr. Jane Hinton.
Portrait photograph of Dr. Jane Hinton from The 1949 Scalpel, yearbook of the Senior Class, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dr. Hinton was the daughter of Prof. William Augustus Hinton, the first African-American professor at Harvard University and the first African-American author of a textbook. In 1931, he developed a Medical Laboratory Techniques course that was open to women, which led to Jane Hinton working with John Howard Mueller at Harvard on the creation of a media for culturing N. gonorrhoeae and Neisseria meningitidis. The Mueller-Hinton agar became the standard for antibiotic susceptibility testing, due to their incorporation of starch in the media, which enhanced growth and produced reliable antimicrobial testing results, and the transparent nature of the media, making the plates easier to read than opaque chocolate agar media, as well as easier to make.

In 1949, Dr. Jane Hinton graduated from the University of Pennsylvania as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. She and Alfreda Johnson Webb, graduating from the Tuskegee Institute, were the first two African-American women veterinarians.

When you are next in the lab or writing up a method and come across a name for growth media or a technique, perhaps take a minute to look into the history behind the name and the microbiology discoveries that went into what we think of as commonplace today. And remember that our discoveries and inventions made by women working in microbiology today may be historic events to someone in the future.

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