Black History Month: celebrating the work of black microbiologists

Posted on October 16, 2020   by Rachel Asiedu

In this second post of our series exploring the research and lives of influential black microbiologists, we will showcase the contributions of Jessie Isabelle Price, James McCune Smith and Alan Powell Goffe.

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Cornell University's Duck Research Laboratory. From left to right: Dr. Wm. D. Urban, Director; Dr. Wm. F. Dean; Dr. Jessie Price; and Dr. Louis Leibovitz (Public domain). 

Jessie Isabelle Price

Born in Pennsylvania, veterinary microbiologist, Professor Jessie Isabelle Price was best known for isolating and reproducing Pasteurella anatipestifer, the cause of New Duck disease. This infectious disease was reported as the most important disease problem of the duck industry in the 1950s. Whilst at Cornell University’s Duck Research Laboratory, Price worked on developing a vaccine to protect white Pekin ducks against bacterial diseases. She also conducted research into avian cholera and tuberculosis for various species through her career, some of which led to the production of commercial treatments.

In addition to her scientific research, Professor Price advocated for the involvement of African Americans and women in science and her professional activities included serving as Chair of the Predoctoral Minority Fellowship Ad Hoc Review Committee of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), as well as being a member of ASM’s Committee on the Status of Minority Microbiologists and Committee on the Status of Women Microbiologists. In 1974, Professor Price also served as National President of the organisation Graduate Women in Science.

James McCune Smith

As well as being well known for his leadership as an abolitionist aiding refugee enslaved people through the Underground Railroad and contributing to the establishment of the National Council of Coloured People in the 1850s, Professor James McCune Smith was the first African American to hold a medical degree, run a pharmacy in the United States and have an article published in American medical journals.

Professor McCune Smith graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1837 and practiced medicine for nearly 20 years. When he returned to New York City after his studies, he was greeted as a hero by the black community. In 1846, he was appointed as the only doctor of the Coloured Orphan Asylum, during a time where the institute’s directors had depended on pro bono services of doctors. Whilst here, he regularly gave vaccinations for smallpox – one of the leading causes of death at the time.

Professor McCune Smith drew from his medical training to discredit popular ideas about differences among the races. In 1843 he gave a lecture series titled ‘Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Races’, to demonstrate the failings of phrenology, a so-called scientific practice of the time that was applied in a way to draw racist conclusions and attribute negative characteristics to people of African descent.

In the mid-1850s, he joined James W.C. Pennington and other black leaders in establishing the Legal Rights Association (LRA) in New York City. A pioneering minority-rights association who waged a nearly ten-year campaign against segregated public transportation in New York City. This organisation successfully defeated segregation in New York and served as a model for later civil rights organisations.

In 1863 he was appointed as Professor of Anthropology at Wilberforce College, the first African American-owned and operated college in the United States.

Alan Powell Goffe

Dr Alan Powell Goffe was a British pathologist of Jamaican descent whose research contributed to the development and improvement of the polio and measles vaccines. He was responsible for setting up the Department of Experimental Cytology at the Wellcome Research Laboratories and has been referred to as the only black man to play a prominent role in the world of research science in Britain in the 1950s and 60s.  

Dr Goffe graduated from University College Hospital with a medical degree and later completed a Diploma in Bacteriology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In 1955, Dr Goffe moved the Central Public Health Laboratory to the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Kent where he worked as the Chief Medical Virologists and made important contributions to the poliomyelitis vaccine and led the development of an attenuated measles strain known as the "Beckenham” strain. During clinical trials, he publicly tested the vaccines on himself and his family to demonstrate his confidence in their safety.

Two years before his death, Dr Goffe set up the Department of Experimental Cytology which was the first department dedicated to fundamental research at the Wellcome Laboratories.

We will be publishing more blogs highlighting the work of black microbiologists this month. If you would like to nominate someone for us to include, let us know on Twitter

Read previous blogs in the series:

Professor Ruth Ella Moore, Professor A. Oveta Fuller and Onesimus