Rebecca Lancefield: bacteriologist

Hard work really does pay off. Rebecca Lancefield (1895–1981) is a case in point. She didn’t have a “eureka moment” and become a scientific goddess overnight. But then no one does, no matter how people tell it after the event.

Rebecca Lancefield

Over a career spanning six decades, Lancefield became a world expert on streptococci, the bacteria responsible for strep throat, impetigo, scarlet fever and, the very rare, necrotising fasciitis a.k.a. the flesh-eating disease!! But I shouldn’t tar all streptococci with the same brush: there are also lots of harmless strains. Indeed, separating out the many different kinds of streptococci and identifying the role of their constituent parts in disease was Lancefield’s life work.

Lancefield’s career got off to a typical start: she was trying to find something that wasn’t there (if you haven’t experienced this then please don’t gloat in the comments section). The “green” viridans streptococci were thought to cause rheumatic fever. It turns out they didn’t, but she managed to publish two papers proving the hypothesis false. Negative results aren’t always bad!

The next challenge was haemolytic streptococci which destroy red blood cells. These actually were important in rheumatic fever. Lancefield had a huge range of streptococcus samples, and she identified a polysaccharide (long chain of sugars) that was on the surface of all the bacteria collected from acute human infections. She defined streptococci with this “C” carbohydrate as “group A” strain streptococci. She named proteins pretty conservatively (unlike the scientists who shortened S-nitrosoglutathione to “SNOG” and the ones who called a new genetic element “moron” ).

When people are infected with these haemolytic streptococci the body fights back, producing antibodies which recognise the invading bacteria. But antibodies only recognise a small part of the bacteria (known as the antigen), the same way that the police are able to identify the criminal from a fingerprint found at the scene of the crime. Lancefield found that the antibodies produced by a person with a haemolytic streptococcus infection did not recognise all the group A streptococci equally – the bacteria had different fingerprints! So the antibodies you produce against one infection might not protect you from another strain of streptococcus, which explained why people were getting recurrent streptococcal infections when they should have developed immunity. She named this protein fingerprint the M antigen (because those bacteria were matt not glossy when grown).

Not only were these discoveries useful for other scientists studying streptococci, but, in a paper published in 1933, Lancefield highlighted their epidemiological importance: providing “a means to determine the origin of a given strain” in outbreaks of disease. As impressive as these findings are, they make up only a small fraction of her life’s work. Over the following years she identified more streptococcal antigens and further classified streptococci, developing the Lancefield grouping, still in use today.

During the Second World War, Lancefield’s lab became known as the “Scotland Yard of streptococcal mysteries” because she characterised unknown strains isolated from military hospitals across the USA. I’m pretty sure she never required the help of any consulting detectives though! Throughout the rest of her career Lancefield gladly received streptococcus samples from all over the world and painstakingly investigated every one. She filled several dozen volumes of loose-leaf notebooks with her observations. These are famously difficult to decipher, and Lancefield herself admitted that she struggled to read her old notes, but it doesn’t seem to have held her back! The Rockefeller Institute still holds the Lancefield Collection of over 6,000 streptococcus strains.

Like all good scientists, Lancefield liked to relax sometimes too! Every year around Thanksgiving she had the whole group over for her famous (very boozy) eggnog, still made by the lab today!  By all accounts, she was good to work with: a good teacher and generous with her samples and her time, but I’m not sure how many of the accounts were written drunk on eggnog!

Rebecca Lancefield’s investigations and discoveries paved the way for understanding how streptococcus bacteria cause disease. She had an unparalleled scientific instinct and superb analytical brain, but she was also methodical, meticulous and hardworking. A modern study looking at letters of recommendation for chemists reported that “grindstone words” like these are more commonly used to describe female applicants, whereas “standout words” such as “exceptional”, “brilliant” and “fabulous” are more commonly used to describe male applicants (I know, “fabulous”, really?) which is disturbing. However, these qualities should not be underestimated: they helped Lancefield become one of the most revered scientists of the 20th century! A lot of the time keeping your nose to the grindstone is exactly what it takes to be great scientist!

Thanks to Dr Boo McConnell for suggesting Dr Rebecca Lancefield! Who should I write about next in my ‘Women in Science Series’? Leave a comment, or suggest someone on Twitter @labcoatlucy!

McCarty, M. “Rebecca Craighill Lancefield (1895-1981): A Biographical Memoir.” Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 57: 226-246

O’Hern, E. M. “Rebecca Craighill Lancefield, Pioneer Microbiologist.” ASM News 41 (1975): 805–810.

One comment

  1. Pingback: A to Z of scientists | LabcoatLucy

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