Dr. Sara Branham, the woman who “killed millions of killers!”
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
It is International Women’s Day and what better way to celebrate the power and intelligence of women than by talking about the amazing work of Dr. Sara Branham Matthews, a scientist whose work was instrumental in developing a treatment for bacterial meningitis)?
Born in Oxford, Georgia (USA) in 1888, her family were certainly ahead of their time in believing in the higher education of women. She attended Wesleyan College, where she received her degree in biology in 1907 and began as a teacher. After simultaneously teaching biology and acquiring a degree at the University of Colorado in chemistry and zoology, Dr. Branham went on to continue her learning at the University of Chicago. During the war, she successfully achieved her PhD (in bacteriology) from the University of Chicago in 1923, and eventually gained her MD in 1934.
With regards to the era and challenges women faced, it is astounding that Dr. Branham was able to acquire such high qualifications and conduct research in the field of bacteriology and medicine during the 30s. This may, in part, be due to WW1 and the need for women to assume positions that were typically reserved only for men. While gender bias still exists today, there have been considerable gains thanks to trailblazing women like Dr. Branham, who’s work helped everyone while also addressing gender inequality within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
There are countless women whose passion, intelligence and tenacity have countered gendered stereotypes and reshaped social norms, so, why are we focusing on Dr. Sara Branham and not another historical female figure?
Well, that is because Dr. Branham made huge contributions to the study of and research into meningitis, which is why she’s such an inspiration for us at the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations.
At 40 years old, she was appointed to the NIH (National Institutes of Health,) which directed the course of her life over the next 25 years or so. While working there, she made breakthrough discoveries in the treatment of bacterial meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis, also known as meningococcus. At the time, meningitis was considered an ‘incurable disease.’ Nowadays, bacterial meningitis may still be deadly but at the very least it can be treated if it’s caught in time. The following extract describes how Dr. Branham discovered how to treat meningitis and is taken from the Georgia Women of Achievement website,
‘...She refined existing sera and, to supplement the serum, she turned to a newly discovered family of drugs, the sulfonamides. Sulfanilamide proved to be the answer, and later treatments of the illness still derive from her discovery.’
Sulfanilamide was developed in 1906 and was the first of the synthetic medicines referred to as sulfonamides. However, it was not used as an antimicrobial agent (I.e. a natural or synthetic substance that kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria) until the late 1930s. Essentially, what Branham did was isolate the meningococcus bacterium, adapt a serum for treating bacterial meningitis and combine it with sulfanilamide, which works by stopping the bacteria from reproducing. As detailed in the newspaper clipping above, the mice that were administered the serum combined with sulfanilamide all survived. This proved instrumental in treating the infamously ‘incurable’ disease that was bacterial meningitis.
So, while the majority of the world was at war, Dr. Branham was fighting her own war. She was up against meningitis, an invisible killer with an unbiased agenda and an unlimited reach; an enemy to everyone.
‘I am both war and woman and you cannot stop me.’
This is the final line of Nikita Gill’s poem, An Ode To Fearless Women. We want to conclude with this notion; Dr. Branham was an unstoppable woman who brought the fight to meningitis during the 1900s. As we strive to #BreakTheBias for International Women’s Day 2022, let’s celebrate women’s achievements, both historically and now. Here at CoMO, we are extremely lucky to be involved with some incredible organisations many of which are founded by equally incredible women.
Women like Rhoda, who founded CADEC in Nigeria, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness about meningitis and advocating for better after care and support. Survivors like Elena (AEM) in Spain and Charity in Kenya, who work hard to counteract the threat of meningitis within their respective communities, likewise through raising awareness, advocating for improved support service and promoting vaccinations. Mothers like Patti and Alicia who, after losing their daughters to meningitis, set up a joint coalition known as the Meningitis B Action Project, together they work tirelessly to draw attention to meningitis B and the vaccine to prevent it. These are only a few of the wonderful women we work alongside in our fight against meningitis; a fight that people like Dr. Branham started.
Dr. Branham made the chances of survival against diseases resulting from meningococcus that little bit more accessible and, in the run up to defeating meningitis by 2030 (WHO), we want to make it so no-one has to suffer because of meningitis.