Food safety: The struggle to pasteurize milk

Pop quiz: The scientist who discovered that pasteurizing milk prevented it from transmitting diseases was told that if it were important, someone else would have discovered it already. What sex was the scientist?

Alice Catherine Evans proved that unpasteurized milk spread disease, and improved the health of any nation that was listening.

It was an exceptionally stubborn microbiologist named Alice Catherine Evans who was the first scientist in the United States to definitively show that microbes in unpasteurized milk can sicken humans as well as animals. She went on to fight for the heat-treating of milk to protect the public and stands today as the mother of pasteurization in the United States. And the male heroes embodied in De Kruif’s book were hardly supportive. She was mocked, belittled and assured that if she was right, “someone much more outstanding” would have made the discovery long before.

De Kruif included her [in Men against Death] to both acknowledge her contribution and protest her treatment. “Such,” he noted sadly, “is the silliness of scientists.”

Still, by the time his book was published, Evans had won her battle to such an extent that she had already been elected president of the Society of American Bacteriologists—a forerunner of the Society of Microbiologists—in 1928. And she had done that with significant support from male colleagues, willing to “honor one woman whose findings dramatically advanced their field of research and improved public health in this country,” wrote Maryland biologist and former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell in a much later tribute of her own.

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