Alice Evans (1881-1975) was a pioneering scientist who established that humans contract the once-common, painful disease brucellosis from raw cow and goat milk. She lobbied successfully for the pasteurization of all milk and lived to see the disease fall into obscurity.
For years, her findings were scorned and ignored because of her gender and because she did not have a doctorate degree. Evans contracted brucellosis while doing research, and suffered from the disease for 30 years. Brucellosis, a recurrent disease also known as Malta or undulant fever, causes shooting pain in the joints, fever, and depression.
Alice Evans was born January 29, 1881, to William Howell and Anne B. Evans in rural Neath, a northern Pennsylvania town to which her grandparents had immigrated from Wales in 1831. She attended local elementary schools with her brother, Morgan, and graduated in a class of seven from the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute of Towanda, Pennsylvania, in 1901.
Lacking the money for college tuition, Evans reluctantly took a job teaching grade school, which was one of the few career options available to women at the time. She taught for four years until her brother told her about a free two-year nature study course for teachers at Cornell University's College of Agriculture. She attended the course, then stayed on to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture. Evans chose the relatively new field of bacteriology-the study of one-celled microorganisms-as her area of major emphasis. She was aided by a scholarship and by a tuition waiver underscoring the college's commitment to training leaders for the nation's agricultural industry.
Encouraged by her professor of dairy bacteriology at Cornell, Evans received a scholarship in bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin. This scholarship had never before been awarded to a woman. One of Evans' professors at the University of Wisconsin was Elmer V. McCollum, who later became famous for discovering Vitamin A. In 1910, Evans was awarded a Master of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin.
Her professors urged her to continue on for a doctoral degree, and Evans later continued her studies at George Washington University and the University of Chicago. However, she never completed her Ph.D., although she was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Wisconsin, the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, and Wilson College. Eventually she became so respected in her field that most of her colleagues called her "doctor," even without the degree. In 1928, she was elected the first woman president of the Society of American Bacteriologists.
Discovered Life's Work
By a stroke of luck, Evans was hired by Professor E.G. Hastings of the University of Wisconsin to work as a bacteriologist on a team developing an improved flavor for cheddar cheese, one of Wisconsin's primary industries. Technically the position was a Federal civil service post, working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dairy Division of the Bureau of Animal Industry. Because space was limited while the bureau's main offices were being built in Washington, D. C., research was temporarily being carried out at several agricultural experiment stations at state universities. The USDA payed the salaries of the investigators and the state provided laboratory space and support.
After three years, Evans moved to Washington D.C. to work in the dairy division of the USDA's Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI). She found herself to be the only woman scientist employed in that particular department. Evans quickly gathered that the Washington staff was shocked that a state experiment station had hired a woman. Evans accidentally became the first woman scientist to hold a permanent appointment there. She would later recall in her memoirs, cited in John Parascandola's article in Public Health Reports, that "according to hearsay, when the bad news broke at a meeting of BAI officials that a woman scientist was coming to join their staff, they were filled with consternation. In the words of a stenographer who was present, they almost fell off their chairs."
Evans joined a team of scientists studying the sources from which bacteria entered dairy products. In addition, she took on the project that would become her life's work, studying the bacteria present in fresh cow's milk. She quickly identified a similarity between two bacteria: the organism that causes spontaneous abortion in cows (Bang's disease), and the organism that causes brucellosis in goats. Her discovery proved that humans could get sick from milk contaminated by bacteria living in cows. She announced her discovery in 1917 at the Society of American Bacteriologists. Her results were published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases the following year. The author of Evans' obituary in the Washington Post called the discovery "one of the most outstanding in the field of medical science in the first quarter of this century," but it was years before her findings were accepted by the scientific establishment and action taken. Paul De Kruif summed up the attitude of Evans' colleagues in his book Men Against Death, published in 1932. "If Evans were right," he imagined the scientists of the day as reasoning, "somebody much more outstanding than Evans would have run onto it long before. Such," De Kruif stated, "is the silliness of scientists."
As Evans herself pointed out in an early paper cited in ASM News, "Considering the close relationship between the two organisms, and the reported frequency of virulent strains of Bacterium abortus in cow's milk, it would seem remarkable that we do not have a disease closely resembling Malta fever in this country." Doctors eventually found brucellosis to be far more prevalent in the U.S. than they had realized. Mild forms of the disease had been misdiag-nosed as influenza, while severe cases were confused with a number of diseases, including tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and malaria. Like many patients, Evans' own chronic case of brucellosis went undetected for months. She identified it entirely by accident, while comparing her own blood against that of a sick assistant.
Ironically, some of Evans' most vehement opposition came from bacteriologist Theobald Smith, who had been one of the first scientists to discover the bacteria in milk and warn about its possible health implications. Battling criticism from detractors in the scientific community, plus facing the resistance of a dairy industry that did not take kindly to the implication that their milk supply was dangerous or even deadly, Evans began to doubt her own facts. She largely abandoned her research for four years.
Research Focus Shifted by War
During World War I, Evans took a job as a bacteriologist at the Hygienic Laboratory, which later became the National Institutes of Health. Wanting to be helpful in the war effort, she worked on improving the drug used to treat epidemic meningitis, a disease that was rampant in the military. Meningitis causes the tissues around the brain and spinal column to become swollen, and kills more than half of the people who contract it. Unfortunately, Evans wound up becoming ill herself, and so was incapacitated for much of the war.
Evans' theories about brucellosis and raw cow's milk were starting to become accepted internationally. Microbiologists from Holland, Austria, Italy, Germany, and Tunisia confirmed her findings. Evans expanded her research to include studying the blood of people ill with brucellosis. Helping Evans' case in the U.S. were Dr. Walter Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, who traced 70 cases of undulant fever to raw cow's milk, and Dr. Charles M. Carpenter, who identified dozens of cases in Ithaca, New York. Evans wrote a paper defending her work, which was presented at the World Dairy Congress in 1923. Ironically, she was too sick with undulant fever to attend the conference herself. Finally, Evans' assertions were accepted and pasteurization—heat treating milk to kill potential disease-harboring bacteria—became standard practice in the American dairy industry. Undulant fever lost its dangerous grip on milk drinkers.
Evans went from being ridiculed to being honored. In 1927, while suffering in the hospital from undulant fever, Evans learned she been had elected president of the American Bacteriologists Society. She was the first woman awarded that honor. Later, she served on the committee on infectious abortion of the National Research Council, and was a delegate to the International Microbiology Congresses in Paris and London.
Evans continued to be fascinated with diseases. Later in her career, she studied streptococcal infection, which causes strep throat and scarlet fever. She retired from the National Institutes of Health in 1945, but served for eleven years as president of the Inter-American Committee on Brucellosis. Throughout her career, Evans was active in a number of organizations. She was honored by the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and belonged to the Washington Academy of Sciences, the American Association of University Women, the American Association of the United Nations, and the United World Federalists.
Made Headlines Once Again
Evans made headlines again in 1966, when she filed suit against the U.S. government. She was unwilling to sign an oath disavowing communist loyalty, as required on her Medicare application. At the time, the law prevented those with communist affiliations from receiving benefits. Represented by Lawrence Speiser of the American Civil Liberties Union, Evans charged that the disclaimer was unconstitutional, violating her right of free speech and association as guaranteed by the First Amendment. The suit was eventually dismissed by the U.S. District Court and Evans was awarded benefits without ever signing the oath.
Evans, who never married, lived in a retirement home from 1969 until her death in Alexandria, Virginia on September 5, 1975, following a stroke. She was 94 years old.
Further Reading on Alice Evans
The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, edited by Roy Porter, Oxford University Press, 1994.
De Kruif, Paul, Men Against Death, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932.
Scientists: Their Lives and Works, edited by Marie C. Ellavich, UXL, 1997.
ASM News, September 1973.
Daily Review, (Towando, Pennsylvania), December 26, 1996.
Public Health Reports, September-October 1998.
Washington Post, December 31, 1927; September 8, 1975.
Washington Star, March 18, 1966; August 24, 1966; September 7, 1966; September 7, 1975.