Women of Discovery: Margaret Pittman

Many smart people around the world are hard at work researching vaccines right now, in order to help bring an end to the global pandemic. None of their work would be possible without some of the pioneers before them, including Margaret Pittman (1901-1995), a bacteriologist who laid the foundation for vaccines against deadly diseases such as typhoid, cholera, whooping cough and meningitis. She is one of our Women of Discovery, with a street named after her in Phase 2 of our Bend, Oregon neighborhood. 

Pittman began her illustrious career as a child, helping her father, a physician, care for patients. Although he died young, he set his children up for the future by leaving behind instructions to send them to college, including his daughters. In 1923, Pittman graduated with honors from Hendrix College in her home state of Kentucky, earning a bachelor of arts in biology and mathematics. She went on to round out her education with a masters degree in bacteriology from the University of Chicago, and eventually a Ph.D. from the same alma mater. 

She began her work in earnest Rockefeller Institute in New York, where she worked on her dissertation surrounding influenza, with the aftermath of the Spanish flu pandemic fresh in the minds of the world. Her research in this arena caused her to receive international attention at a very young age. When the Depression hit, she lost her job with the Institute and she joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

While at NIH, Pittman worked on vaccines for many diseases which are still in use today, including those to prevent typhoid, cholera, pertussis (whooping cough), and other diseases. Her extensive testing on vaccines helped to determine dosage, potency and efficacy, research on which standards were adopted worldwide. While at NIH, she also conducted research on blood plasma and transfusions, something much in demand during the second World War.

Her stint with NIH spanned several decades, culminating in her appointment as the very first woman to head a major NIH laboratory (1957). Pittman served as chief of the Laboratory of Bacterial Products, Division of Biologics Standards until her retirement in 1971. She continued to work, specifically on cholera research, and continued serving as a consultant to the World Health Organization until 1983, when she was 82 years old. 

She received many honors for her work, including the Federal Women’s Award (1970) and the EMD Millipore Alice C Evans Award from the American Society for Microbiology (1990). She was also honored with an NIH lectureship in her name, among other distinctions. She passed away in 1995.