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Evans, Alice Catherinefree

(29 January 1881–05 September 1975)
  • Marianne Fedunkiw Stevens

Alice C. Evans

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114793).

Evans, Alice Catherine (29 January 1881–05 September 1975), microbiologist, was born in Neath, Pennsylvania, the daughter of William Howell Evans, a farmer, surveyor, and teacher, and Anne B. Evans, a teacher. Alice Evans taught school from 1901 to 1905 before going on for further education herself. She took a two-year nature study course specifically geared toward rural teachers and organized by Cornell University, where she then completed her bachelor of science degree in 1909. She went on to receive a master of science degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1910 and later also did graduate work at George Washington University and the University of Chicago.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Evans was hired as a dairy bacteriologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry. For three years she worked both in Washington, D.C., and at an agricultural experiment station in Madison, Wisconsin, specifically investigating microbes in the milk of healthy cows.

Being a woman in a predominantly male field in the first decades of the century meant taking a back seat in research. A quote (no source given) in the entry on Evans in Current Biography (1943) observes, “In a state of fundamental hopelessness she plodded, like all girl bacteriologists. She was destined to no famous end. The best she could hope for was to hew wood and carry water (technically) for some microbe hunter whose man’s brain was fit to exploit the drudgery of her hands” (p. 199).

But Evans persevered. In 1913 she became a bacteriologist for the USDA—the first woman to hold such a permanent appointment—and during her five years in Washington, D.C., she made her most significant discovery, much of the work being her own independent study. In 1917 she discovered a Bang bacillus in the milk of certain cows. To that point, the germ was considered harmless to humans, although it did lead to contagious abortion in cows, a disease in cattle caused by the bacteria Brucella abortus, which led to pregnant cows losing their developing calves before the fetal animals reached their full gestation period. The work of Evans, who had been calling for cooperative research between veterinarians and physicians, illustrated why. She concluded that the Bang bacillus, discovered by and named for Danish veterinarian Bernhard L. F. Bang in 1897, and the Bruce bacillus, discovered by British Army Medical Corps major general Sir David Bruce during the Crimean War, which had disabled thousands of soldiers fighting along the Mediterranean as Malta fever, were one and the same.

Although Evans reported her findings at the meeting of the Society of American Bacteriologists in 1917 and published them in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in 1918, her discovery was largely ignored. She was neither a man nor a physician nor a researcher with a doctorate. Critics also noted that if the microbes were the same, why were there no sweeping cases of Malta fever in the United States? In fact, the disease did exist but was often misdiagnosed since, in mild cases, its symptoms echoed those of other sicknesses, such as influenza, rheumatism, or tuberculosis.

The fury died down for a few years, during which Evans moved to the U.S. Public Health Service in 1918 as an assistant bacteriologist in the Hygienic Laboratories (later the National Institutes of Health, or NIH). While researching new diseases such as influenza, meningitis, and streptococcal infections, other researchers took up the problem of undulant fever. Soon researchers from other countries concurred with Evans’s conclusion. But it took agreement from Cornell University’s Charles M. Carpenter to set the wheels in motion for the widespread pasteurization of milk to be adopted in the United States. Carpenter did his own experiments and found that the same germ that caused both Malta, or undulant, fever in humans caused contagious abortion in animals. In 1920 Karl F. Meyer of the University of California suggested that a new genus, Brucella, be adopted to include both organisms, and because the germ could be transmitted to humans by handling infected cattle or from cows’ milk, the dairy industry was forced to pasteurize all milk by the 1930s.

Sadly, Evans contracted undulant fever herself in 1922, while doing her research. The effects stayed with her for more than twenty years. She was often quoted as noting, “It seems as if those bugs had a special animosity toward me, since I made that discovery” (Current Biography [1943], p. 200).

In 1930 Evans was a delegate to the first International Microbiological Congress in Paris, France, and she also attended the second congress, in 1936 in London, England. She was a member of a number of associations, including the Society of American Bacteriologists, of which she was the first female president (1928). She also served as a member of the National Research Council’s Committee on Infectious Abortion from 1925 to 1931. She was the author of many papers published in journals such as the Journal of Bacteriology, the Journal of Immunology, and Science.

After twenty-seven years with the NIH, Evans retired in 1945. She did not, however, leave microbiology. She served as honorary president of the Inter-American Committee on Brucellosis until 1957. In recognition of her contributions to science, she was elected an honorary member of the American Society for Microbiology in 1975. Evans, who never married, died in Alexandria, Virginia. Renowned for her efforts to get milk pasteurized after proving that raw milk was the major cause of undulant fever, or brucellosis, in human beings, she was also the first woman to hold a senior appointment in the federal government in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Bibliography

Evans’s papers and unpublished autobiography, “Memoirs,” are in the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., and the American Society for Microbiology Archives at the University of Maryland. Some correspondence is held at the Cornell University Libraries. She is profiled in a number of reference texts and her biography and picture appear in Current Biography (1943), pp. 198–200. Other sources tracing her work can be found in the entry on Evans in Patricia Joan Siegel and Kay Thomas Finley, Women in the Scientific Search: An American Bio-Bibliography, 1724–1979 (1985). For contemporary articles on her and her work, see Paul de Kruif, “ ‘Before You Drink a Glass of Milk’: The Story of a Woman’s Discovery of a New Disease,” Ladies’ Home Journal, Sept. 1929, reprinted in de Kruif, Men against Death (1932), in which Evans is the only woman scientist whose work is covered. An obituary is in the New York Times, 7 Sept. 1975.