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Rebecca Craighill Lancefield

Born 1895
Died 1981

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American bacteriologist, born January 5, 1895, fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, New York; died March 3, 1981.

Biography of Rebecca Craighill Lancefield

Rebecca Craighill Lancefield was born Rebecca Price Craighill, the daughter of Colonel William Edward Craighill who was stationed with the US Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Wadsworth, and Mary Wortley Montague Byram. She attended Wellesley College from 1912, graduating in 1916. She was a student of English literature, but attended a course in bacteriology and it was as an undergraduate at Wellesley she became interested in scientific studies. During her last two years here she devoted much of her efforts to obtain a good grounding in chemistry.

Rebecca Craighill then started teaching science and mathematics at Hopkins Hall, a boarding school in Burlington, Vermont. However, she was offered a scholarship at Teacher's College of Columbia University, giving her the opportunity to study in Hans Zinsser’s (1878-1940) Department of Bacteriology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. When Zinsser went to Europe in 1918 because of World War I, her education continued under Arnold Kent Balls, an enzyme chemist who served as head of the department. That same year, 1918, she received the degree of Master of Arts from Columbia and then married Donald Lancefield, a fellow graduate student at Columbia who was in the famous Department of Genetics – the “Fly Room” – under Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945).

Later that year she joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research as a technical assistant to Oswald Theodore Avery (1877-1955) and Alphonse Raymond. Dochez (1882-1964), commencing her studies of the haemolytic streptococci, known then as Streptococcus haemolyticus.

When Donald Lancefield in 1921 was offered a position at the University of Oregon, she found a position as an instructor in bacteriology at the same university. Later that year the couple returned to New York and Columbia University, Donald Lancefield to join Morgan’s department and Rebecca Lancefield to finish her degree with Zinsser, who accepted her as a candidate for the Ph.D. At this time Homer Fordyce Swift (born 1881) was starting a study of rheumatic fever at the Rockefeller Institute Hospital, and Rebecca Lancefield accepted a position with him. She remained at this Institute for the rest of her professional life.

Lancefield received her Ph.D. in immunology and bacteriology at Columbia University in 1925. She was professor of microbiology at Columbia from 1958 to 1965.

Rebecca Lancefield received many honours, of which these are just a few. In 1943 she was the second woman to become President of the Society of American Bacteriologists. In 1961, she became President of the American Association of Immunologists, the only woman to be President of that Association. In 1970 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, being honoured for her outstanding research on streptococci and their relation to rheumatic fever. She received the New York Academy of Medicine Medal in April 1973 and in June of 1973 she received the highest recognition from the institution where she spent most of her professional life, The Rockefeller University, which awarded her a Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) degree.

Rebecca Lancefield never developed much sympathy for the modern feminist's point of view on women in science. She was not enthusiastic about honours that recognized her as the "first woman" to do this or that and preferred those that came without reference to her sex.

Her classification work helped provide the foundation for epidemiological investigations for streptococcal disease worldwide. During World War II Lancefield's laboratory supplied vast quantities of Group A streptococcal sera to the U.S. Armed Forces. She maintained her laboratory activity until a few months before her death.

We thank Paris Lovett and B. Spellerberg for information submitted.

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