McCoy, Elizabeth (1903–1978)

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McCoy, Elizabeth (1903–1978)

American bacteriologist . Born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1903; died in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1978; daughter of Cassius McCoy (a farmer) and Esther (Williamson) McCoy (a nurse); received undergraduate degree and Ph.D. in bacteriology (1929) from the University of Wisconsin.

Elizabeth McCoy was born on her family's farm in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1903. Her mother, Esther Williamson McCoy , had considered attending medical school before deciding to study nursing and for six years put off marrying her fiancé Cassius McCoy so that she could continue to work as a nurse. Elizabeth McCoy inherited her mother's love of science, although as she was growing up she also demonstrated such an interest in farming that her father decided to groom her rather than her brother to take over the family spread. An apt student, McCoy completed an accelerated secondary education and then attended the University of Wisconsin to study general bacteriology. She was so dedicated to learning all she could in her field that she took graduate courses before completing her undergraduate degree. She received a doctorate in 1929 and was hired by the university as an assistant professor of bacteriology the following year.

Although female scientists were rare at the time, McCoy distinguished herself in bacteriology. She began to specialize within her field after joining the faculty at Wisconsin, and became an authority on the bacteria of lake ecosystems. She also studied butyl alcohol-producing bacteria, known as clostridia, and traveled to Puerto Rico to help the territorial government establish a butyl alcohol fermentation plant. (This work led her to develop a new culture of clostridia, which she patented.) McCoy's expertise in creating new strains of bacteria yielded many useful results, but the single most important was probably her creation of Strain X1612, a bacterium which made the production of penicillin for civilian use economically and scientifically feasible. She remained an active student, researcher, and teacher of bacteriology until her retirement in 1973, after which she concentrated on researching the development of bacteria to treat sewage. McCoy was still engaged in this research when she died in Madison in 1978, bequeathing her beloved family farm to the University of Wisconsin.


Bailey, Brooke. 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, Inc., 1994.

Grant Eldridge , freelance writer, Pontiac, Michigan

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McCoy, Elizabeth (1903–1978)

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