Dr. Jessie Isabelle Price: A Research Most Fowl
Updated: Jun 5
Who was Jessie Isabelle Price?
Jessie Isabelle Price was a veterinary microbiologist, but not for the ‘typical’ pets such as dogs and cats. Her animal of choice was ducks! Price grew up in Montrose, Pennsylvania in a single-parent household in the 1930s and endured financial hardships throughout her life. At the time, the expectation for her was to join the workforce as soon as possible to help support the family, but her mom wanted something better for her daughter and encouraged her to get an education. Jessie was the only black student in her class and one of only three in the entire school. Price was unable to pursue her dream as an MD, due to cost (are we sensing a theme?) and had to ‘settle’ for a microbiology degree. But luckily for her being a microbiologist is way cooler than a doctor! To save money for graduate school, she took a job at the poultry disease research Farm in Veterinary College at Cornell, and so began her life long career as a Duck microbiologist under, what I perceive as, some really great mentorship by Dorsey Bruner. You can read one of their papers here. She received both her masters, in 1958 and her Ph.D. from Cornell in 1959.
The Duck Doctor
Just like us, other animals are also plagued by pathogens. And working as an avian microbiologist may not sound like that big of a deal, but chicken and eggs are a fundamental part of so many diets. When pathogens kill livestock, food prices can increase or, even worse, are not available! In the 1950s, the bacterium Pasteurella anatipestifer killed 10-30% of ducklings and, in 1964, it was estimated this pathogen cost the industry about $250,000 (In 2020 money is more than $2 million!). Price was not only able to isolate this bacterium (isolations are hard!), but she was able to develop a vaccine (both an injectable and later oral), saving countless little avian friends! The pathogen, Pasteurella anatipestifer, is thought to be contracted either through the respiratory route or through lesions on the bird's feet. Due to the transmission route, it is spread easily throughout a facility once one bird contracts the disease. In ducks, the disease manifests as discharge from the eyes and nose as well as coughing, sneezing, and tremors. In infected turkeys, a hunched back, lameness, and twisted neck is often observed. Much like our current pandemic, ensuring a high level of sanitation and distancing can drastically reduce the spread of the disease. If the duck/turkey was not vaccinated and contracts the disease antibiotics can be used, but there is a growing number of strains that are becoming antibiotic-resistant.
In 1966, Price received a travel grant from the National Science Foundation to attend the International Congress for Microbiology in Moscow, where she presented her work. She eventually moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and took on a position at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. In addition to Pasteurella anatipestifer, Price also researched avian cholera and TB. She was the Chair of the Predoctoral Minority Fellowship Ad Hoc Review Committee of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), as well as the chair of the Summer Research Fellowship and Travel Award Program. Way to pay it forward Jessie! She also was a breeder of Corgis, enjoyed photography, music, and traveling. Dr. Jessie Isabelle Price died of Alzheimer’s just a few years ago in 2015.
Over the past week, we have highlighted 6 black Americans that contributed significantly to the field of microbiology. If these people made such great contributions, despite the limitations, how much more could they have done?
Back then “equality” was never on the table; it is ‘accepted’ today that “equality” is written and expected, but rarely is it granted. Please be kind to each other, love each other, and know everyone has something to offer to the world!
That concludes microbigals miniseries on “Black Lives Matter in Microbiology”. There are so many more amazing scientists to highlight and we look forward to bringing you more information on some of Microbiologists greatest heroes!
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If you liked this article and would like to read more about important black figures in microbiology, click on the links below.