Today in Science History – April 5 – Hattie Alexander Saves Us From Bacterial Meningitis

Hattie Alexander
Hattie Alexander (1901 – 1968)

April 5 celebrates Dr. Hattie Alexander birthday. If you suffered from infant meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenzae, she more than likely saved your life.

This type of meningitis is a bacterial infection which inflames the tissues which cover the brain and spinal cord. This usually causes a high fever and one of the most common bacterial infections in small children. When Dr. Alexander began researching this bacteria in 1940, children infected with this form of meningitis invariably died. She developed a serum and treatment which greatly impacted the mortality rate of the condition. Her early results lowered the mortality from nearly 100% to around 20%. Today, this type of meningitis is treated by more powerful antibiotics. 

She also discovered the bacteria showed evidence of evolving to form resistance to the antibiotics used against it. This led her to the field of microbial genetics and discoveries of DNA controlling the disease producing traits of bacteria.

Dr. Alexander served as the first woman president of the American Pediatric Society in 1965.

Hattie and Carlin
Hattie Elizabeth Alexander (on the bench) and Sadie Carlin (right) – 1926. Library of Congress

While researching her, I found this photograph of Miss Alexander and Mrs. Sadie Carlin at the Library of Congress archives. This is a classic example of news photographs taken of scientists “at work”. Newspapers wanted pictures of scientists at work, but more often than not, scientists at work are visually boring. The photographer poses the scientist in some interesting position to make the image more appealing.

This image shows two pretty young medical students. Hattie Alexander casually sits on the lab bench next to a rat-filled tube. She is holding a rat so Sadie Carlin can inject some SCIENCE into the animal’s veins. This sort of thing happens every day in laboratories across the world (haha).

Even the first image of Alexander shows her sitting in front of her microscope holding a petri dish up, the back side towards her face, probably thinking hard about how much more work she’d be getting done if the reporters would leave.

Notable Science History Events for April 5

1967 – Hermann Joseph Muller died.

Hermann Joseph Muller
Hermann Joseph Muller (1890 – 1967)
Nobel Foundation

Muller was an American biologist who was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work research on mutations and genetic effects of x-ray radiation. He showed how x-rays would break chromosomes and change individual genes. He used his work to illustrate the dangers of the cumulative effects of radiation.

1929 – Ivar Giaever was born.

Giaever is a Norwegian physicist who shares the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics with Leo Esaki and Brian Josephson for their research and discoveries into the quantum effect of tunneling in solids.

Electron tunneling is a phenomenon where electrons are found in places where under classical mechanics, they could not be found. The electron’s wavefunction can be expressed to show the electron “tunneling” through potential barriers to wind up on the wrong side of the barrier. Giaever’s research was into the quantum tunneling phenomenon of electrons in superconductors.

1901 – Hattie Elizabeth Alexander was born.

1827 – Joseph Lister was born.

Joseph Lister
Joseph Lister (1827 – 1912)

Lister was an English surgeon who pioneered the idea of sterile conditions in surgeries. He introduced the practice of sterilizing surgical instruments and wounds with carbolic acid which led to less post-operative infections. His theories were generally not well received by established medical professionals but became quite popular in medical schools and teaching hospitals. By the time the next generation became doctors, Lister was seen as the founder of modern surgery.

1804 – Matthias Jakob Schleiden was born.

Matthias Jakob Schleiden
Matthias Jakob Schleiden (1804 – 1881)

Schleiden was a German biologist who is considered one of the pioneers of cell biology. Together with Theodor Schwann, he announced all plants and animals are made up of cells. Scheiden concentrated his research on plant cells, identifying types of cells and the role of the cell nucleus.