Lancefield, Rebecca Craighill (1895–1981)

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Lancefield, Rebecca Craighill (1895–1981)

American immunologist and microbiologist who produced a system of classification for streptococci. Born Rebecca Craighill in Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, New York, on January 5, 1895; died in March 1981 in Little Neck, Queens, New York; daughter of William Edward Craighill and Mary Wortley Montague (Byram) Craighill; Wellesley College, B.A., 1916; Teachers College at Columbia University (in conjunction with Columbia Medical School), M.A., 1918; Columbia University, Ph.D., 1925; married Donald Elwood Lancefield (a scientist), on May 27, 1918; children: Jane Maddox Lancefield (who married George Leonard Hersey).

The daughter of an Army officer, Rebecca Lancefield was born on Staten Island, New York, and experienced a nomadic childhood following her father's postings. Educated at a number of public and private schools, she entered Wellesley in 1912 to study French and English, but her interest soon shifted to zoology. Upon graduating in 1916, she taught at a boarding school in Burlington, Vermont, saving most of her salary for graduate school. With the additional support of a scholarship for daughters of the military, she was able to enroll at Columbia University with the stipulation that she confine her studies to Teachers College at Columbia. Since they offered no courses in bacteriology or genetics, she matriculated at Teachers College but took courses at the university's medical school. In 1918, she earned her M.A. and married a fellow student, Donald Lancefield.

While her husband studied for his Ph.D., Lancefield worked at the Rockefeller Hospital and taught briefly at the University of Oregon, when he had a position there. In 1922, the couple returned to New York, where Lancefield began her work on streptococci at the Rockefeller Institute and finished her Ph.D. Her doctoral work, which centered on developing a system for classifying an elusive strain of streptococcus, was frustratingly slow, and she did not receive her degree until 1925. Her findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine. Continuing to investigate other strains of streptococci, she found that isolated substances from her samples could be used to group the streptococci into five different types. In 1940, after 20 years of work, her findings became the basis of the method of classifying streptococci adopted by the International Congress of Microbiology. By 1943, Lancefield's stature was such that she was elected president of the Society of American Bacteriologists.

Throughout her career, Lancefield continued to further classify different strains of streptococci, often utilizing her past research for new problems. In 1960, for example, she used a dried sample from 1935 to identify a strain of streptococci that was attacking lab mice. Advanced age did not slow down her personal research or her work within the broader scientific community. In 1960, at age 65, she was elected the first woman president of the American Association of Immunologists, and in 1970 she was elected to the National Academy of Science. Rebecca Lancefield died in 1981.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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