Celebrating Black microbiologists throughout history

Summary

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In the field of microbiology, many Black scientists have paved the way for advancements in human health while breaking barriers and inspiring generations to come. Let's explore the inspiring stories of five remarkable Black microbiologists who have left an undeniable mark on our world.

William Augustus Hinton (1883-1959)

William Agustus Hinton

Often referred to as the "Dean of Black Microbiologists," William Augustus Hinton made significant strides in the field during the early 20th century. Born in Chicago in 1883 to freed slaves and overcoming racial prejudices, Hinton was the first African American professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University [1]. 

After completing his Harvard Medical Degree with honors in 1912, Hinton sought a residency in surgery. But after being denied by Boston-area hospitals due to his race, he turned to the laboratory. Through his groundbreaking work performing autopsies on suspected syphilis patients, he developed a diagnostic test for syphilis, known as the Hinton test, which played a pivotal role in the early detection and treatment of the disease [2]. 

Hinton's dedication to scientific excellence and his trailblazing achievements opened doors for future Black scientists, marking a crucial chapter in the history of microbiology.

Dr. Ruth Ella Moore (1903-1994)

Dr. Ruth Ella Moore

Dr. Ruth Ella Moore was a bacteriologist known for her work on blood types, tuberculosis, tooth decay, and gut microbes. She lived through significant moments in American history, including women's suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. She was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in natural sciences, in 1933, with her dissertation on tuberculosis. 

After earning her Ph.D, Moore served as an assistant professor at Howard University, where she later became the head of the Department of Bacteriology, the first woman to head any department at Howard. During her tenure, she had the foresight to change the name to the Department of Microbiology to include all types of microbes. 

Her research on African-American blood types and the reactions of different gut microbes to antibiotics had significant impacts on public health [3]. Her work is published in several scientific journals, including The Journal of the American Medical Association [4].

Dr. Harold Amos (1918-2003)

Dr. Harold Amos

Harold Amos aspired to be a renowned scientist. In 1941, he graduated from Springfield College with a biology major and a chemistry minor. However, WWII interrupted his plans, and he was drafted into the army. Afterward, Amos attended Harvard Medical School and earned an MD and PhD, the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from the Division of Medical Sciences in 1952, and the first Black American to serve as Chair of a department at Harvard Medical School [5].

After graduation, Amos received the Fulbright Fellowship and got the opportunity to study at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, working with mutations of Escherichia coli. His research was expansive, and he published over seventy scientific papers. He is best known for his work in culturing animal cells, bacterial metabolism and virology, and cell metabolism and its effects on gene expression. He also helped explain the workings of DNA and RNA [6].

Amos spent over 50 years at Harvard, receiving numerous awards and honors, and mentoring hundreds of minority students aspiring to become scientists and medical doctors.

Jane Hinton (1919-2003)

Jane Hinton

Jane Hinton was a pioneer in antibiotic resistance research. Following in the footsteps of her father, William Augustus Hinton, she worked as a lab technician at Harvard University. In 1941, Jane worked with John Howard Mueller to create the Mueller-Hinton agar, a culture medium that can grow various pathogens and test them for antibiotic resistance [7]. 

Jane Hinton co-developed the Mueller-Hinton agar, a test used to determine if bacteria is susceptible to antibiotics.

Jane was also one of the first two African-American women to gain a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, and she later practiced as a small animal veterinarian in Massachusetts until 1955. She then became a federal government inspector with the Department of Agriculture, helping research and treat livestock diseases [8]. Her legacy is a testament to her resilience and commitment to advancing both science and healthcare, breaking gender and racial barriers in the process. 

Evelyn Marie Carmon Nicol (1930-2020)

Evelyn Marie Carmon Nicol looking into a microscope

Evelyn Marie Carmon Nicol was a molecular biologist whose research made notable contributions to microbiology and immunology. She studied at Tuskegee University, where she was assigned a major of home economics because of her previous work experience as a maid. Nicol had other plans, however, studying math and chemistry and graduating at the top of her class, all while working two jobs to fund her studies [9]. 

Nicol was the first person to successfully isolate the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox and shingles, using amniotic cells in tissue culture. She is also one of few Black women with a patent in the sciences for her method for urokinase production, an enzyme that degrades blood clots [10]. 

Her many other contributions to the field include:

  • Assisting with polio vaccine development at Carver Center at Tuskegee
  • Developing a test for Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis in pregnant women, that is still used in Europe
  • Developing some of the first commercial test kits for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) [9]
  • Authoring eight scientific publications [10].

Honoring the achievements of Black microbiologists

As we celebrate Black History Month, we recognize and honor the contributions of these Black microbiologists who have advanced human health and scientific understanding, while recognizing there are countless others like them. These stories exemplify resilience, excellence, and the great power of diversity in science. 

References

[1] “Portrait of a Pioneer | Harvard Medical School.” Accessed: Feb. 01, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://hms.harvard.edu/news/portrait-pioneer

[2] E. Munson, “Biographical Feature: William A. Hinton, M.D,” Journal of Clinical Microbiology, vol. 58, no. 11, p. 10.1128/jcm.01933-20, Oct. 2020, doi: 10.1128/jcm.01933-20.

[3] “Celebrating Black History Month - Ruth Ella Moore | Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.” Accessed: Feb. 01, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://mbb.yale.edu/news/celebrating-black-history-month-ruth-ella-moore

[4] “Proud they’re ours: Ruth Ella Moore | College of Public Health | The Ohio State University.” Accessed: Feb. 01, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://cph.osu.edu/news/2022/01/proud-theyre-ours-ruth-ella-moore

[5] “Harold Amos · Maximizing Microbiology: Molecular Genetics, Cancer, and Virology, 1913–2013 · OnView.” Accessed: Feb. 01, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/exhibits/show/maximizingmicrobiology/amos

[6] E. Nagourney, “Harold Amos, 84, Pacesetter Among Blacks in Academia,” The New York Times, Mar. 06, 2003. Accessed: Feb. 01, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/06/us/harold-amos-84-pacesetter-among-blacks-in-academia.html

[7] J. H. Mueller and J. Hinton, “A Protein-Free Medium for Primary Isolation of the Gonococcus and Meningococcus,” Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 330–333, Oct. 1941, doi: 10.3181/00379727-48-13311.

[8] E. Mitchell, “Dr. Jane Hinton: Co-Developer of Mueller-Hinton Agar.” Accessed: Feb. 01, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://blog.eoscu.com/blog/jane-hinton

[9] “A Better Future for Black Microbiologists: Lessons Past & Present,” ASM.org. Accessed: Feb. 01, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://asm.org:443/Articles/2021/February/A-Better-Future-for-Black-Scientists-Lessons-Past

[10] “Evelyn Nicol Obituary (1930 - 2020) - Weston, Ct, CT - Chicago Tribune,” Legacy.com. Accessed: Feb. 01, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/chicagotribune/name/evelyn-nicol-obituary?id=2826452