Pittman, Margaret (1901-1995)

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Pittman, Margaret (1901-1995)

American bacteriologist

An expert in the development and standardization of bacterial vaccines, Margaret Pittman advanced the fight against such diseases as whooping cough (pertussis ), tetanus , typhoid, cholera, anthrax , meningitis , and conjunctivitis.

Pittman was born on January 20, 1901 in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, the daughter of a physician, James ("Dr. Jim") Pittman, and the former Virginia Alice McCormick. The family moved to nearby Cincinnati, Arkansas, in 1909. Her father was the only doctor in that rural area, and she sometimes helped him on his rounds or with anesthesia. Her formal education was sporadic until three years of high school in Prairie Grove and two years of music seminary in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. As a member of the class of 1923 at Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas, she double-majored in mathematics and biology, and won the Walter Edwin Hogan Mathematics Award in 1922. From 1923 until 1925 in Searcy, Arkansas, she taught and served as principal at Galloway Woman's College, which merged with Hendrix in 1933. She received her M.S. in 1926 and her Ph.D. in 1929, both in bacteriology from the University of Chicago.

Pittman's landmark article of 1931, "Variation and Type Specificity in the Bacterial Species Haemophilus Influenzae," showed that the pathogenicity (disease-causing quality) of this microbe is determined by minor differences in its physical nature, such as the presence or absence of a polysaccharide capsule. For all microbes, these differences can be classed as strains or types. Pittman identified six serotypes of Haemophilus influenzae, which she labeled "a" through "f." Serotype b (Hib) is the most pathogenic, causing meningitis and several other serious infections. Her work led to the development of polysaccharide vaccines that immunize against Hib.

Pittman conducted her bacteriological research at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University) from 1928 to 1934, at the New York State Department of Health from 1934 to 1936, and from 1936 until the end of her career at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Among the subjects of her research were tetanus, toxins and antitoxins, sera and antisera, the genus Bordetella, the Koch-Weeks bacillus, the standardization of vaccines, and cholera. Some of this work was done abroad under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO ). In 1957, Pittman became the first woman director of an NIH laboratory when she was chosen chief of the Laboratory of Bacterial Products in the Division of Biologics Standards. She held that post until she retired in 1971. Thereafter she lived quietly but productively in Temple Hills, Maryland, serving occasionally as a guest researcher and consultant for NIH, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and WHO, and remaining active in the United Methodist Church, especially through Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She died on August 19, 1995.

In 1994, NIH inaugurated the Margaret Pittman Lecture Series and the American Society for Microbiology presented its first Margaret Pittman Award. On October 19, 1995, John Bennett Robbins (b. 1932) and Ronald D. Sekura, both of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, announcing their new pertussis vaccine , based on Pittman's research at the FDA.

See also Antiserum and antitoxin; Bacteria and bacterial infection; Meningitis, bacterial and viral; Pneumonia, bacterial and viral; Serology; Tetanus and tetanus immunization; Typhoid fever

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Pittman, Margaret (1901-1995)

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