Alice Evans (1881-1975)

ALICE EVANS

Alice C. Evans was a scientist who made one of the most medically important discoveries of the 20th- century.  Born in 1881 on a farm in Pennsylvania, Evans worked as an elementary teacher for four years, starting in 1901, because she could not afford to attend college.  When a free course on nature was offered to rural teachers at Cornell University, Evans took advantage of the opportunity.  While taking the free course, Evans also took a basic course in the Agricultural College, which started her interest in bacteriology.  Evans won a scholarship to Cornell and received a Bachelors of Science.  Then Evans received the first scholarship offered to a woman from the University of Wisconsin, where she went to obtain her Masters of Science degree.       

In 1910, Evans became one of the first women scientists to hold a permanent position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Animal Husbandry.  She worked for the dairy division, researching the bacteriology of milk and cheese.  From her studies, she identified a bacterial infection carried by cows that could cause undulating fevers in humans and published her findings in 1918.  Researchers, veterinarians, and physicians were skeptical of her claim because they did not think that a woman, particularly one without a doctorate degree, could have made such an important discovery.  Dairy workers laughed at her warning that raw milk should be pasteurized to prevent people from developing disease.  However, other scientists came to the same conclusion in the late 1920s and by the 1930s, the government enacted milk pasteurization laws.  Evans’ discovery prevented countless people from suffering from fevers and even death.

Evans was herself infected with undulant fever in 1922, and she suffered from recurrent bouts for thirty years; she went through periods of illness and remission because the disease never left her system.  However, this did not stop her from working throughout her life as a widely respected scientist.

After she left the Department of Agriculture, Evans worked for the U.S. Hygienic Laboratory where she made valuable contributions in the field of infectious illness, including meningitis and streptococcal infections.  After retiring in 1945, Evans lectured widely to women about career development and encouraged women to pursue scientific careers.  She also became the first woman president of the American Society of Bacteriologists.  Evans died from a stroke in 1975 at the age of ninety-four.

 

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Books:

  • Burns, Virginia Law. Gentle Hunter: A Biography of Alice C. Evans, Bacteriologist. Enterprise
               Press, 1993.
  • Colwell, R.R. “Alice C. Evans: breaking barriers.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine
                1999 Sept-Oct, 72(5): 349-56.
  • “Guide to the Alice Catherine Evans Papers, 1908-1965” (Division of Rare and
               Manuscript Collections) Cornell University.

 

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