This Virus Hunter Hunter Fought a Pandemic Using a Garage Full of Guinea Pigs

Harriet Jane Lawrence was one of the first female pathologists in the U.S. In the early 1900s she worked in Portland, Ore., where she hunted microbes and developed vaccines and serum therapies with the help of 200 guinea pigs that she kept in her garage. Her work on a vaccine during the 1918 influenza pandemic earned her presidential recognition and has had a lasting impact on medicine.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

AMY Scharf: I’m Amy Scharf, Co-Executive Producer of Lost Women of Science, and your host for this episode of From Our Inbox, a series of mini episodes featuring women in science who’ve been brought to our attention by you, our listeners.

On today’s episode, we follow a tip from Gloria Hodes, a singer and performer based in New York. She wrote in about a scientist named Harriet Jane Lawrence, a pathologist working in Oregon in the early 1900s.

Producer Erica Huang brings us her story.

Essie Jenkins: “1919 Influenza Blues”:

It was in nineteen hundred and nineteen

Yes men and women was dyin’,

Erica Huang: This is Essie Jenkins, singing a tune called “1919 Influenza Blues”.

Essie Jenkins: With the stuff which the doctors called the flu.

Erica Huang: If you don’t know about the 1919 Influenza that she’s singing about here, also called the Spanish Flu or the 1918 flu, you’re not alone – until our more recent pandemic caused a surge in interest, the 1918 flu was widely considered “forgotten”. World War I was taking up all the newspaper real estate at the time, and then-president Woodrow Wilson never made a single public statement about it. Despite the fact that it killed over 600,000 people in the U.S. alone.

And in the chorus that’s coming up here, Essie sings some lyrics that point to something else interesting about this flu.

Essie Jenkins: But it was God’s almighty plan,

He was judging this old land

Erica Huang: She says “it was God’s almighty plan. He was judging this old land”. And for the people living (and dying) through this flu in 1918, that was the only answer they had about what was happening. Because in 1918, no one knew that influenza was caused by a virus.

Which brings us to scientist Harriet Jane Lawrence.

Gloria Hodes: First of all, she was one of the first women pathologists in America.

Erica Huang: This is Gloria Hodes, who wrote to us about Lawrence.

Gloria Hodes: She was as far as I know the first woman pathologist in Oregon.

Erica Huang: And Gloria knew her personally. She was a family friend.

Gloria Hodes: She had met my mother at a PTA meeting, and we became friends. I often went to her lab. And she would let me look through the microscope and count cells.

In Portland, so many doctors would of course seek her services. And I would often be in her lab when they would come. But I, you know, I was very very young, and I didn’t totally understand. I knew that she used her guinea pigs, ha!

Erica Huang: This is something that is mentioned constantly in the records I’ve found about Lawrence. Guinea pigs.

Gloria Hodes: Two hundred guinea pigs!

Erica Huang: That she kept in her garage at her house in Portland, and used literally as guinea pigs – to develop vaccines and serum therapies.

So how did Harriet Jane Lawrence end up here in Portland, with 200 guinea pigs in her garage?

Let’s go back a bit.

Harriet Jane Lawrence was born in 1883, in Maine. When she was just 15, she started teaching at a nearby schoolhouse. She used the money she made to put herself through college, and through medical school at Boston University.

After graduating, she moved to Oregon and opened her own laboratory in the Selling building, which is one of Portland’s historic landmarks.

As Gloria mentioned, Dr. Lawrence was one of the first women pathologists in the country. And she made it a point to champion other people who were overlooked in the sciences too. She aided Oregon doctor Alan L. Hart, who underwent one of the first recorded cases of gender affirming surgery when he got a hysterectomy in 1917. She also wrote him a letter of recommendation, which helped him find work as a staff physician.

And then, came the flu.

So it’s 1918, and hospitals across Oregon are filled with flu patients – the numbers of infected people keep climbing, and the hospitals are at capacity. It’s a pandemic. I’m sure it’s not too hard to imagine what that was like.

I wanted to know what the state of American medicine was like in 1918. So I asked an expert.

John Barry: Yes, I’m here because I wrote a book called The Great Influenza, about the 1918 pandemic.

Erica Huang: This is John Barry.

John Barry: There was a revolution in American medicine that was extraordinarily rapid. Really a period of maybe three decades. It went from probably the worst in the developed world, to pretty much equal to the best, from 1890 to just around the time of the pandemic.

Erica Huang: But even though there had been some amazing advances in immunology, and vaccines and antitoxins had been developed to treat some diseases like diphtheria and tetanus, there was still a lot they didn’t know. Most importantly:

John Barry: They didn’t even know what a virus was.

Erica Huang: Bacteria and viruses are fundamentally different. Bacteria are larger, single cells that can survive on their own. Viruses are much smaller, and they cause infection by entering and multiplying inside the host’s healthy cells. They’re harder to find, and harder to target.

Erica Huang (interview): It seemed like a lot of the initial race to develop treatments and things like that was entirely focused on “which bacteria is causing this?”

John Barry:  Right, as Goethe said, you look where you have light. And they understood bacteria. Many scientists around the country were trying to target that bacteria for a vaccine. They had em in Boston, they had em in Philadelphia, they had em in New York, you know, they had em in Portland, Oregon.

Erica Huang: Where Harriet Jane Lawrence was working at her lab in the Selling building.

So The Oregon Board of Health brought an infected tissue sample from the navy yard in Bremerton, Washington, to Dr. Lawrence’s lab in Portland. And she decides that the bacteria she’s going to target with her vaccine is hemolytic streptococcus, which had been showing up again and again in flu patients. She isolates the pathogen from the sample, and grows a culture of it – then uses that to produce a batch of the vaccine. This was an arduous and time consuming process – at least three weeks of work. And she and her contemporaries around the country were working against a flu that was moving through the population at breakneck speed.

So this begs the question, right – if all these scientists were pulling all these sleepless nights developing the wrong thing, was all this work in vain? No. Here’s why.

Michael Worobey: The vast majority of people who died from flu, died of secondary bacterial pneumonia.

Erica Huang: This is Michael Worobey, a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, giving a talk at The University of Arizona about the role that pneumonia played in the 1918 pandemic.

Michael Worobey: It’s the way flu has always killed, and it’s the way it kills now.

Erica Huang: And people got pneumonia through the bacteria that invaded their systems, after they were infected with the virus. One bacteria in particular was a common culprit: Hemolytic Streptococcus. And this is the bacteria that Dr. Lawrence’s vaccine targeted.

Michael Worobey: Pneumonia is really, really deadly. It creates inflammation, fluid buildup in your lungs, where you need them clear for oxygen. And that’s what killed people in 1918.

Erica Huang: I should say, we don’t know exactly how much of an impact her specific vaccine had on pneumonia in flu patients. There are different strains of bacteria that cause pneumonia, and her vaccine would have only worked against a subset of them. But in 2010, there was an article published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, which analyzed a number of studies on these bacterial vaccines. And it suggests that hemolytic streptococci vaccines provided “significant protection” against pneumonia and mortality.

So, was this work in vain? No! It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it most likely saved lives. And also, the vaccines that were created to fight pneumonia during that time, are still helping us out today.

John Barry: The pneumonia vaccine you get today is a straight line descendant of one that was developed during the pandemic.

Erica Huang: Dr. Lawrence’s vaccine was distributed to flu patients across Oregon. And Lawrence was recognized on a national scale for this work.

Gloria Hodes: President Woodrow Wilson honored her for the work that she did on this.

Erica Huang: In the years following the worst of the pandemic, Doctor Lawrence continued to develop vaccines and serums to fight diseases (this is where the garage full of guinea pigs comes in).

She also became a fellow with the American Society of Clinical Pathologists, and served on the executive committee of the Medical Club of Portland.

Gloria actually didn’t know about any of this, until she recently looked Doctor Lawrence up as she was preparing to share her story with us.

Gloria Hodes: I just had no idea. To me she was just sweet Dr. Lawrence, with the little wispy grays in her face when she would come for dinner. She was – she was amazing!

Erica Huang: Gloria is not a scientist.

Gloria Hodes: I am a singer and a performer.

Erica Huang: But in her stories about Doctor Lawrence, you can hear the love of science being passed down – the things Doctor Lawrence impressed upon her, that were maybe more important to share than the accolades. The wonder of the lab, and the search for the unseen.

Amy Scharf: This episode of Lost Women of Science: From Our Inbox was produced and engineered by Erica Huang, and recorded at Good Studio in Brooklyn. Our executive producers are Katie Hafner and myself, Amy Scharf. Lizzy Younan composes our music. Special thanks to Gloria Hodes, John Barry, and Bob Wachter. We get our funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Schmidt Futures. PRX distributes us and our publishing partner is Scientific American. 

Here at Lost Women of Science, it is our goal to rescue female scientists from the jaws of obscurity, but we need your help! If you know a female scientist who’s lost to history, please let us know! You can go to our website and send us an email at Lostwomenofscience.org. You’ll also find the phone number to our tip line. We love getting calls to our tip line.

Thanks for listening.

Further reading:

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. Penguin, 2020. 

Carr, Sujittra Avery. Beyond Suffrage: Giving Voice to Oregon’s Unsung Women in Medicine. 

Clyde, Velma. “Doctor Honored By University.” The Oregonian, 9 Dec. 1963. 

Najera, Rene F. DRPH. The 1918-19 Spanish Influenza Pandemic and Vaccine Development.

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