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Branham, Sara Elizabeth (1888–1962)

Branham, Sara Elizabeth (1888–1962)

American bacteriologist and researcher in the field of public health who conducted pioneering work on meningitis. Born in 1888 in Oxford, Georgia; died in 1962; attended Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia; University of Colorado, Ph.D., 1923; M.D., 1934.

Paralleling the work of Hattie Alexander , Sara Elizabeth Branham is known for her pioneering research on meningitis, a disease that attacks the membrane around the brain and spinal cord. Her success in demonstrating that sulfa drugs inhibit the activity of meningococcal bacteria helped pave the way to successful control of the often fatal disease.

Branham, a native of Georgia, studied biology at Wesleyan College, then taught in Atlanta before becoming an assistant in bacteriology at the University of Colorado, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1923. In the midst of studying for a medical degree, she accepted a position as a bacteriologist with the U.S. Public Health Service (now the National Institute of Health, or NIH) where she would remain for 30 years (with a brief leave in 1934 to complete her M.D.).

While there, she became involved with the meningitis epidemic of 1927. Although a anti-serum had been effective in controlling an earlier outbreak, it seemed ineffective against the new strain of bacteria, Neisseria meningitidis. Branham's battle against the disease was labor-intensive, due to the fragile nature of the meningococci cultures, which demanded subculturing every other day to keep the strain viable. She was successful in identifying several different strains of meningococci and in proving that the type and virulence of the meningococcus was as important a factor in the spread of the disease as the number of infected people in the population. By 1937, she had found sulfa drugs to be effective in treating the disease. When another epidemic threatened the United States in 1940, a new serum was in place. Sara Branham retired from NIH in 1958, when she was 70. In 1959, she was named Women of the Year by the American Medical Women's Association.

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