Mattiedna Johnson wasn’t a microbiologist by trade – she was a nurse – but that didn’t stop her from helping in the race to develop lifesaving antibiotics.
Born in 1918 to Mississippi sharecroppers, Johnson was a high school salutatorian before graduating from nursing school in Memphis, TN, and starting work as a registered nurse.
In the 1930s and early ’40s, there were hundreds of thousands of cases of scarlet fever in the United States, mostly in children. Before antibiotics, around 20% of cases resulted in death. At a scarlet fever isolation ward in St. Louis, an infant succumbed to the disease in Johnson’s arms. She never forgot.
In 1944, drug companies were looking for ways to develop antibiotics like penicillin that would cure a range of bacteria-caused diseases. Amid the throes of world conflict, the U.S. War Department declared penicillin production a top priority, and University of Minnesota plant pathologist C.M. Christensen announced strains developed in his lab were being released for commercial production. That same year, Johnson responded to a newspaper ad about the project. Christensen hired her.
It turned out Johnson’s experience growing up on a farm, making jelly, butter, and lye soap, was great training for some of the scientific processes used to isolate molds. She worked with many molds, but it was a strain found in tomato soup she introduced to the bacteria that caused scarlet fever. Johnson found the results promising.
She likened the mold spores to “terrible mice” because under the microscope, they appeared to be “running around the house tasting everything.” After providing spore samples to her superior, she never heard back and in 1946 left to begin missionary work in Liberia. By the end of the decade, antibiotics had turned scarlet fever from a terrifying disease to an easily treated illness.
It wasn’t until many years later that Johnson learned Pfizer had filed for a patent in 1949 to produce oxytetracycline under its brand name, Terramycin. Though it wasn’t the preferred drug for scarlet fever, it was, and remains, a powerful and widely used medication.
Did it come from the same mold that Johnson found on her tomato soup? Johnson thought so, and some experts today say they believe she was denied credit for her findings. Johnson believed her “terrible mice” description had inspired the medicine’s commercial name, she wrote in her 1988 self-published memoir.
Pfizer acknowledges Johnson was part of the penicillin project, but the company’s 1950 patent credited three men. The commercial name was reportedly inspired by the bacteria being discovered in Terre Haute, IN, (and the suffix, -mycin, means antibiotic compounds derived from fungus). Asked if Johnson’s work helped lead to the production of oxytetracycline, Pfizer said it had no further information.
Oxytetracycline remains on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. It is used today mainly in eye ointments.
Johnson Is Not Alone
Johnson has long been an inspiration to Confidence Anyanwu, PhD, a microbiologist who lectures at Bingham University in Karu, Nigeria. Anyanwu’s mother, who worked in nursing herself, often spoke of “the nurse microbiologist” who was denied credit for her work. Anyanwu wrote about Johnson’s journey and her research in a March 2023 essay, for the American Society of Microbiology, about five iconic Black women in the field.
“She remained resolute on contributing towards the ongoing penicillin research despite seemingly being a square peg in a round hole … and having her ideas sidelined,” says Anyanwu, who conducts HIV- and cancer-related research as a postdoctoral fellow at New York Medical College.
“She was also one of the women scientists whose innovative ideas and contributions to biomedical research were not acknowledged as and when due.”
Unfortunately, there are numerous historical examples, says Anyanwu, including Nettie Stevens’s discovery of sex chromosomes, Elizabeth Bugie’s co-discovery of streptomycin, Rosalind Franklin’s work on DNA, and Mildred Rebstock’s contributions to antibiotics research.
In 1993, historian Margaret Rossiter coined the term “Matilda effect” – named after suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage who wrote a pamphlet titled “Woman as Inventor” in 1870 – referring to the tendency to overlook women’s contributions in science.
Yet gender bias in science persists. Last year, Nature published a study stating women are less likely than men to be named on patents or scholarly articles and are systematically less likely to be recognized.
Johnson’s story provides lessons on the importance of embracing big tents in science, and not just when it comes to race and gender, Anyanwu says.
“There are a lot of Johnsons in different professions trying to transition from one field to another, probably due to passion or other reasons,” she says.
“I think aspiring microbiologists can diversify if need be. There is no harm in a geneticist researching viruses or a chemist working with fungi or a medical doctor exploring plasmids. …
“No profession should be too rigid to let people who have demonstrated passion flourish just because they were not trained in the profession. One way or the other, all professions are interconnected.”
A Life of Service
Johnson was the fifth of 10 children born to her parents. She weighed less than 4 pounds, spurring her father to pray to God she would enjoy good health in exchange for a life of service.
Mattiedna Johnson lived up to that promise.
She returned to the United States after her missionary work, settling in Cleveland in 1959, where she tutored nurses and taught classes out of church basements. She and her husband raised four children, and it was at her husband’s church where she made history again..
She and other nurses were dismayed that the reverend was hosting too many funerals – up to three a week.
“We wanted to find out what was killing these people,” Johnson writes.
“We decided to do a 575-person blood pressure screening at Cory United Methodist Church. That was the first time that blood pressures had been taken away from a doctor’s office. After that, blood pressure screening became widespread.”
Johnson also became a powerful advocate for her fellow Black nurses, decrying the segregation in the private registry that white nurses used at the time to connect with patients. In her autobiography, she describes racism in Cleveland at the time as “worse than in any part of the South.”
Concerned about the lack of representation at a 1970 American Nurses Association conference in Miami Beach, Johnson hosted a meeting among Black nurses to discuss representation and other issues – which led her and 14 other nurses to establish the National Black Nurses Association the following year. Johnson became the group’s first secretary. The organization now boasts over 300,000 members.
Two years later, she co-founded the Cleveland Council of Black Nurses and served as its second president.
Johnson received federal recognition in 1990, when U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, took to the U.S. House floor to pay tribute to the nurse of more than 50 years. Despite being disabled later in life, he noted, Johnson continued to educate and advocate through the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, which he chaired.
“Mr. Speaker,” Stokes said, “I take pride in congratulating Mattiedna Johnson. She is a great pioneer and a source of inspiration to our community and the nation.”
Anyanwu concurs: “I think her story ought to be told by and to all and sundry to highlight her remarkable feat, and also encourage younger scientists in similar situations to look beyond their boundaries and work for the good of mankind.”
Johnson died in 2003. She was 85. She is buried in Mayfield Heights, OH, east of Cleveland.
“I made up my mind as a youth that I wanted to care for the ill. I have fulfilled that dream. This is my story in a capsule so to speak,” she said, according to a funeral program provided by the Cleveland Council.