Thanks to pasteurization, we know we can usually pick up a glass of milk without worrying about bacteria and disease. But without the work of Alice Evans, that wouldn’t be the case.
Alice Evans was one of the first scientists to propose the connection between Bacillus abortus bacterium in cows being passed through raw milk to humans in the form of brucellosis, also known as undulant fever. She first published her finding in 1918 but her conclusions were openly disregarded, because she was a woman and didn’t have a Ph.D. One detractor said that if her findings were real then someone smarter than her would have already found the connection. Discouraged by the criticism, Evans began to doubt her own work and in the same year as she published her findings and with the intention of being helpful in the war efforts she shifted to working at the precursor of the National Institutes of Health.
While working in the lab she was infected with undulant fever in 1922 and suffered from the symptoms for many years. While she had temporarily walked away from her original research in brucellosis, others had picked up on her findings and began to see the wisdom in her work. Doctors had been able to trace multiple cases of undulant fever to raw cow’s milk and in 1923 Evans wrote another paper defending her original statements. Due to her persistence and the continued work of others in the field, the dairy industry reluctantly began to accept the connections between raw milk and bacteria and started pasteurizing milk. There began to be a decline in the incidence of brucellosis. Elected in 1927 as the president of the American Society of Bacteriologists, she served as the first female in this role.
Evans continued to work at NIH often having to put her work with brucellosis aside when large outbreaks of other diseases came up including influenza and Streptococcus. She continued her research with the Brucella bacteria until her retirement in 1945 after which time she presented lectures on the career development of women, especially in scientific fields. In 1970 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and she passed away in 1975.
Written by Angela Goad