Hobby, Gladys Lounsbury (1910–1993)

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Hobby, Gladys Lounsbury (1910–1993)

American microbiologist who played an important role in making penicillin a mass-produced antibiotic during World War II. Born Gladys Lounsbury Hobby in New York City on November 19, 1910; died in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, on July 6, 1993; daughter of Theodore Y. Hobby and Flora Lounsbury Hobby; graduated from Vassar College, 1931; granted M.A., Columbia University, then granted Ph.D. in bacteriology, 1935; never married.

A native of New York City, Gladys Lounsbury Hobby graduated from Vassar College in the gloomy Depression year of 1931, going on to Columbia University to earn both a Master's degree and a Ph.D. in bacteriology. From 1934 to 1943, she was associated as a research scientist with Presbyterian Hospital and the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. During these years, dramatic research findings were opening the possibility of discovering new and effective means of combatting infections that had often resulted in death. The saga of these medical advances had begun in 1928 at St. Mary's Hospital in London, when Alexander Fleming, a bacteriologist, noticed that bacteria adjacent to a mold growing in a petri dish were dead. A stray spore of greenish mold, later identified as Penicillium notatum, had found its way onto the dish that Fleming had seeded with a culture of disease-causing Staphylococcus. Although Fleming wrote and published several papers describing the antibiotic effect of penicillin in vitro, he never attempted to extract penicillin and made no clinical tests.

Throughout the 1930s, research in the area of discovering an effective antibiotic was carried out both in the United Kingdom and the United States. At Oxford University, the team of Howard W. Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman G. Heatley was able by 1940 to perform the first successful clinical tests of penicillin on animal subjects, after having produced minute amounts of the antibiotic from surface cultures and after developing a reliable method for measuring exact quantities. By August 1940, the Oxford team had published their results in The Lancet, prompting an American team at Columbia University consisting of Martin Henry Dawson, Gladys Hobby, and Karl Meyer to push the research one step further. In October 1940, Dawson, working with his team, administered penicillin parenterally (by injection) to patients, though not in sufficient quantity to produce any effects. Soon after this, in February 1941, the Oxford team was able to point to therapeutic results from their administration of penicillin. In October 1942, the New York team led by Dawson used penicillin to effect cures of subacute bacterial endocarditis, a condition that had hitherto been invariably fatal.

In 1944, Gladys Hobby began working for a major pharmaceutical company, Charles Pfizer & Company, as a senior bacteriologist. Here, she carried on significant research that was linked to the large-scale production of penicillin. At Pfizer, Hobby worked closely with John L. Smith, who recognized that the only way to assure the production of sufficient quantities of penicillin was to rely on deep tanks in which a process of submerged fermentation could take place. Before it was certain that this would be the most effective method of producing penicillin, Smith took what would become a winning gamble by assuming that this method would be the only industrial-scale approach to meeting the challenge of making large quantities of the antibiotic available to an eagerly waiting world.

In her 1985 book Penicillin: Meeting the Challenge, Gladys Hobby described the immense challenges that scientists, including herself, faced in the late 1930s and early 1940s in transforming Alexander Fleming's observation into an effective and affordable therapeutic agent. Hobby noted that penicillin "was a British discovery—it was discovered in England, first studied in England, first used clinically in England—and it probably was one of Britain's major wartime contributions to society." The British role then became significantly less prominent as teams of American scientists and technicians—and corporate resources, along with generous government funding—sped penicillin on the path to becoming a readily available antibiotic. As Hobby pointed out in her book, "It was American ingenuity, U.S. dollars, and U.S. production acumen that led to penicillin's availability as an effective chemotherapeutic drug." Hobby's book has become a modern classic in medical history.

In 1959, Hobby left the Pfizer laboratory to become scientific director of the Veterans Administration Infectious Disease Research Institute in East Orange, New Jersey. Here she specialized in studying chronic infectious diseases as well as a myriad of related topics including bacteriophages, bacterial variation and enzymes, streptococci, pneumococci, tubercle bacilli, rat-bite fever, experimental tuberculosis, rheumatic diseases, sulfonamides, the chemotherapy of infectious diseases, immunizing agents, and germ-free life. In addition to these subjects, she continued working in several research areas relating to penicillin and other antimicrobial drugs. Until her retirement in 1977, Hobby served as an assistant clinical research professor in public health at Cornell University Medical College. After retiring, she worked as a consultant and freelance science writer. From 1965 to 1980, she served as editor of an internationally recognized monthly journal, Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. Relatively unknown to the public, Hobby, who spent fully one-third of a century working on the development of antibiotics, deserves recognition for playing an important role in both the scientific investigation and the industrial production of one of the great life-saving discoveries of the 20th century—penicillin.


Cluff, Leighton E. "America's Romance with Medicine and Medical Science," in Daedalus. Vol. 115, no. 2. Spring 1986, pp. 137–159.

Hobby, Gladys. Penicillin: Meeting the Challenge. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

Neushul, Peter. "Science, Government, and the Mass Production of Penicillin," in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. Vol. 48, no. 4. October 1993, pp. 371–395.

Saxon, Wolfgang. "Gladys Hobby, 82, Pioneer in Bringing Penicillin to the Public," in The New York Times Biographical Service. July 1993, p. 951.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Hobby, Gladys Lounsbury (1910–1993)

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