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Margaret Pittman: An Extraordinary Female Scientist

Updated: Jun 5, 2021

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There are few female scientists who were more influential to microbiology than Dr. Margaret Jane Pittman. She not only worked with some of the world’s worst infectious diseases of the 20th century including, cholera, whooping cough, tetanus, typhoid, meningitis, and conjunctivitis, but she collaborated with some of the best 20th-century scientists. She is, and will always be, a role model and a mentor to generations of not only female microbiologists but any aspiring female scientist. If you are not familiar with her work, I urge you to read on to learn not only vital information about microbiology history but, to learn about this extraordinary famous microbiologist.

Famous Microbiologist Jane Pittman started out helping her father administer anesthesia to his patients.
Famous microbiologist Jane Pittman started out helping her father administer anesthesia to his patients.

Pittman’s Rise To Becoming A Famous Female Scientist

Margaret Jane Pittman was born just after the turn of the century on January 20, 1901. She was one of three children of Dr. Jim Pittman and Virginia Alice McCormick. From a very early age, Pittman was interested in medicine (and partaking in what are now illegal medical procedures).

You see, Dr. Jim Pittman was the only doctor in a very rural area of Arkansas. He had little help to take care of all his patients, so naturally, he enlisted his daughters. Pittman recalls helping her father administer anesthesia to his patients throughout her childhood. Today, this would be totally illegal and unacceptable. I couldn’t imagine entering a doctor’s office and seeing a little girl administering anything; I’d walk out of there so fast! But hey it was a different time.

This was, for Pittman, her foray into the world of public health and medicine, a moment that must have had a lasting impression on her because she became a public servant for the majority of her life. She was always an ambitious person. Not only did she go to Hendrix College in a time where women often did not go to college, but she doubled majored in mathematics and biology. She even received the Walter Edwin Hogan Mathematics Award in 1922.

In 1926, she received “an opportunity undreamed of”, when she won a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. From 1928-1934 she worked under Rufus Cole at the Rockefeller Institute for medical research where she began the work that would win her international fame (well science fame, not rockstar fame) before she was even 30 years old. Her hallmark paper was published in 1931 and was entitled, “Variation and Type Specificity in the Bacterial Species Haemophilus Influenzae”. In this paper, she linked H. Influenzae’s polysaccharide capsule to pathogenicity.

Haemophilus influenzae

Haemophilus influenzae does not cause the flu. Many people thought it might and it was what Pittman originally sought to determine. In microbiology, we have a number of ways to classify organisms. Often when we name a bacteria such as Haemophilus influenzae there are two words. The first describes the genus and the second the species. All microorganisms that belong to the same genus have many similarities and are genetically alike. For example, all microorganisms that belong to the genus Haemophilus are the same shape, coccobacillus (in between a circle and a rod). However, there can still be a lot of differences within a genus.

Take Pseudomonas viridiflava and Pseudomonas syringae as an example. The first is a known beneficial organism to several plants. The latter is a known pathogen, yet they exist in the same genus.

The species, influenzae, is much more specific, but we can get even more specific by classifying strains of the species. Finally, at the most specific classification, we have serotypes. Serotypes of the same species have a distinct variation from each other but are still extremely similar genetically. Pittman identified 6 serotypes of Haemophilus influenzae which she labeled “a” - “f”. Each serotype causes a different intensity of disease with some causing no disease at all and can be commonly found in the nose and throat. Haemophilus influenzae B (Hib) is the most medically relevant and common serotype of Haemophilus influenzae.

Hib can cause pneumonia, ear infections, skin infections, inflammation of the joints, swelling of the throat, blood infections, and meningitis. In Pittman’s time, young children were at a huge risk of contracting the disease and it could be fatal. Because it is transmitted through droplets from coughing and sneezing it could be highly contagious and spread through daycare and schools rather quickly.

Pittman’s research took an interesting turn when she realized some strains had a polysaccharide coating around the bacteria. Hib is what is called a capsulated bacteria, meaning it has a gelatinous layer that covers the outside of the microbe. Capsules are commonly made of polysaccharides- a carb made of sugar molecules bonded together. The polysaccharides can be made up of different sugar molecules that are bonded differently; these differences are the different serotypes

Now, it may seem that wrapping yourself in a sugar coating is not an ideal defense mechanism from predators (def would not suggest it if you are approached by a bear!). But for bacteria, this is a reliable defense mechanism used by a number of human pathogens like Streptococcus pneumoniae. This coating prevents the immune system, specifically white blood cells, from “eating” the bacteria. If the white blood cell decides to eat them anyway, the microbe may still survive. The capsule can also help them stick to cell walls and form even stronger shields known as biofilm! Capsules can be made of other materials, and they're even are yeast species that have them, how cool!

20th-century scientist discovered that polysaccharide capsules can help protect microbes from white blood cells.

Her Career At NIH Working With The Top 20th Century Scientists

In 1936, Pittman was one of three bacteriologists hired by the NIH, National Institute of Health. This role gave her immense opportunities to work on a number of infectious diseases, solidifying her role as one of the greatest 20th-century scientists in the public health sector.

If you are interested, there is a great interview that Dr. Victoria Harden conducted with Dr. Pittman in 1988 regarding her time at NIH. Pittman described her time at NIH as having “a great deal of collaboration”.

She worked with Dr. Sara Branham, a famous microbiologist herself, on developing a potency test for meningitis antisera. Dr. Sara Branham also worked on diphtheria, dysentery, and psittacosis resulting in the publication of 70 papers and 2 books over the course of her career.

During WWII Dr. Pittman worked with Dr. Thomas Probey to develop a pyrogenicity test for blood transfusions. This helped set better standards for blood transfusions so there were no contaminants that might cause fever to whoever was receiving the blood.

Dr. Harry Meyer said she “was always seeking and embracing the new, and could recognize new opportunities in new technologies.” This shows how many different organisms she worked with and her influence on the number of vaccines that we have today. She was recognized for her commitment to public health by becoming the first woman in history to head a laboratory at NIH, gaining the title “Chief of the Laboratory Of Bacterial Products” in 1957.

In the 1960s she worked with Dr. Joseph Smadel and Dr. John C. Feeley on the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) cholera project. SEATO worked to solve public health problems in developing countries. The cholera project was started in the 1960s but was later renamed the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Bangladesh. This project first developed oral rehydration therapy and is still around today, a leader in cholera research and fighting the diseases current 7th pandemic and developing treatments for malnutrition that have been adopted by the World Health Organization.

In addition to Cholera, blood transfusions, meningitis, and Haemophilus influenzae, Pittman still found time to work on another terrible childhood disease, whooping cough.

Dr. Margaret Pittman worked on all kind of infectious disease including making her a famous microbiologist.

Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Whooping cough is another disease we, in the United States, no longer have to worry about because of the work of Dr. Margaret Jane Pittman and others who helped develop a vaccine. Whooping cough is so named because it causes a high pitched breath and has a terrible lingering cough. Some cough so intensely they crack their own ribs or bust blood vessels in their eyes. Bordetella pertussis, another Gram-negative coccobacillus like H. influenzae, was discovered as the causal agent of whooping cough in 1906, by Jules Bordet and Octave Gengou.

The vaccine for whooping cough was actually created by two other female microbiologists, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, who both had whooping cough as children. The vaccine became routine in 1943, but from the beginning, Pittman was concerned about the toxicity of the pertussis vaccine. “But it was not until I was a guest scientist at the University of Glasgow in 1976 that it suddenly came to me that pertussis had a true exotoxin, like diphtheria or cholera toxin, that caused the harmful effects and the prolonged immunity of whooping cough,” she said.

Pittman presented this idea of a pertussis toxin three times before the scientific community listened. Finally, at the Third International Symposium on Pertussis Vaccine in ‘78, she presented her findings and people took it seriously.

She has her paper Pertussis Toxin: The Cause of the Harmful Effects and Prolonged Immunity of Whooping Cough. A Hypothesis” published in May 1979 and “they went like hotcakes” as Pittman puts it. She said, “It is satisfying to have changed the direction of work on pertussis vaccine.” Pertussis has several toxins that aid in its pathogenicity. One is tracheal cytotoxin which paralyzes cilia, they are tiny mops in your throat that sweep out mucus and debris. Once paralyzed, these little mops stop functioning and mucus begins to build up. Today, the Pertussis vaccine uses several of the toxins the bacteria produce instead of the microbe itself, but don’t worry, the toxins have been modified so that they cannot cause harm.

Death and Legacy Of Dr. Margaret Pittman

Pittman worked at NIH until she retired in 1971. In that time she published 100 articles and received several awards and the NIH even has a lectureship in her honor. She passed away on August 19, 1995, leaving a big legacy in microbiology.

I hope I have shown you how influential this woman was. She once said, We [the NIH] were so small that we were responsible for everything that happened. I think the attitude of young people today is different. It is to make a name for themselves.” She did not seek fame, or publications. Pittman lived in a time before “publish or perish” was the slogan of research. Pittman was a public servant even as a child, motivated by solving public health crises and harboring a spirit of collaboration. She was determined and resilient, being a pioneering woman in microbiology and deserving of a place among the greatest 20th-century scientists.

Do you think Pittman deserves more recognition? If so please share this article or something you learned with a friend. Together we can shed light on some of these marvelous women nearly forgotten in history.

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