Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist
Dr. Margaret Pittman was one of the great scientific minds of the past century. While she helped create vaccines for three diseases that once left millions dead in their wakes, the Arkansan accomplished much more.
She had risen steadily from her roots in Washington County to becoming a school teacher, principal, and eventually acclaimed research biologist. She started working at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC, in 1936, in what she later called “a golden opportunity.” At the time, she was one of only a handful of women working as research scientists for the federal government.
In addition to her work on vaccines, one of her most important breakthroughs emerged during World War II. Wounded soldiers often showed signs of infections after blood plasma infusions, infections tied to the infusions. Pittman inspected the storage and processing procedures used and quickly devised a new strategy with other NIH scientists. Soon, they established new tests and new lab standards to ensure the safety of the plasma given to the wounded. Post-operative recovery rates improved dramatically as a result. Pittman noted in a later interview that this led directly to test samples being taken at the time of blood donation and modern tests for HIV or hepatitis contamination from donated blood.
By 1957, the NIH appointed Pittman to head the Laboratory of Bacterial Products, a position she would hold for the next 14 years. With this promotion, she became the first woman to head a national lab in the United States.
Pittman was in high demand at scientific conferences, and she traveled the world speaking about her research. In the 1960s, she was participating in studies of cholera outbreaks in Bangladesh and participating in World Health Organization projects to stem the tide of infectious diseases in the poorest parts of the world. She also researched a salmonella vaccine.
Throughout her career, Pittman made public health her primary interest. This devotion to science and public safety led to her colleagues electing her as president of the Washington Academy of Science and the Society of American Bacteriologists. In 1970, she was given the Federal Women’s Award by the US Department of the Interior.
She retired in 1971 at the age of 70, respected around the world. However, still possessing an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, she went back to the lab as a guest researcher for the NIH, conducting studies and experiments without pay. She also continued to publish important articles in prestigious medical journals on different vaccines and research into different bacteria and diseases into the 1990s.
In her later years, she remembered the difficult times her family faced after the death of her father and how her mother had worked so hard to take care of them. To honor her, in 1981, Pittman established the Virginia McCormick Pittman Distinguished Professorship at Hendrix College in Conway. Today, the Pittman Professorship is considered one of the highest honors for Hendrix professors and has been held by an eclectic group of scholars including Dr. Bruce Haggard, a biologist, and Dr. Stephen Kerr, an economist.
In 1986, Pittman was given an honorary fellowship from the American Academy of Pediatrics for her work on vaccines. Though she was never a medical doctor, her breakthroughs in the lab made the practice of medicine so much easier for modern physicians. By 1993, at the age of 92, she stepped away from the lab from the last time. The next year, the NIH established the Margaret Pittman Lectureship in her honor.
She died in Cheverley, Maryland, not far from Washington, DC, in 1995, on her ninety-fourth birthday.