Headlines from The New Yorker to Science magazine trumpet new additions to the list of superbugs, including multi-drug resistant strains of streptococci. The search for improved anti-infective therapies would be dead in the water without a fundamental understanding of the biology of these clinically relevant, Gram-positive bacteria. The grouping and typing of streptococci by a Staten Island native, Rebecca Craighill Lancefield (January 5, 1895–March 3, 1981), was indispensable in this regard.
A scholarship to Columbia University and subsequent position as a technician in the Rockefeller University (RU) laboratory of Oswald T. Avery and Alphonse R. Dochez formed the cornerstones of a lifelong career devoted to unraveling the biology of streptococci. Using a precipitin method developed by Avery to differentiate among pneumococci, she was able to publish her first paper distinguishing 4 groups of streptococci . After briefly working at the University of Oregon, she returned to RU to continue her streptococcal research. She systematically grouped these bacteria and designated each group by the letters A through O. She found that group A streptococci were associated with humans and were etiological agents of scarlet fever, sore throat as well as other diseases. In an era where capsular polysaccharide antigens were thought to be the major virulence determinants, she identified the M antigens of group A streptococci as proteins with anti-phagocytic properties . In the 1950s she purified M protein with Gertrude Perlmann and continued to characterize it along with other antigens from group A and group B streptococci. Her work on group B streptococci formed the basis for the medical response to a sudden rise in group B meningitis among neonates in the 1970s .
Colleagues acknowledged her success with several awards, including a National Academy of Sciences medal presented to her in 1973 by Maclyn McCarty . In addition, she headed the Society of American Bacteriologists from 1943 to1944 and served as the first female president of the American Association of Immunologists from1961to1962. Her other awards include the T. Ducket Jones Memorial Award in 1960, the American Heart Association Award in 1964 and honorary degrees from RU in 1973 and Wellesley College in 1976 .
Vincent Fischetti, a RU professor, remembers her as a dedicated and meticulous scientist, prerequisites to unraveling the complexity of streptococci. Her research legacy continues to inform the search for new vaccines and antibiotics against these resurgent human pathogens.
2 Enersen, O.D. Rebecca Craighill Lancefield: http://www.whonamedit.com/doctor.cfm/2880.html, (1994-2008)
3 McCarty, M. Presentation of the Academy medal to Rebecca C. Lancefield, Ph. D. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 49 (11), 949-953 (1973)