Ida A. Bengtson

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Ida A. Bengtson
Ida A. Bengston (1981-1952) (33597778752).jpg
Alma materUniversity of Nebraska, University of Chicago
Known forclassification of Clostridium botulinum, standards for gas gangrene toxins and anti-toxins
Scientific career
InstitutionsUnited States Public Health Service's Hygienic Laboratory

Ida Albertina Bengtson (1881–1952)[1] was an American bacteriologist, known for her work with anaerobic organisms. She became the first woman hired to work in the United States Public Health Service's Hygienic Laboratory, at the National Institutes of Health.

Life and Education[edit]

Ida Bengtson was born in Harvad, Nebraska in 1881 as the daughter of Swedish immigrants. She attended the University of Nebraska graduating in 1903 with degrees in mathematics and languages[2].[1]

Early Career[edit]

Following graduation, Bengtson began working at the U.S. Geological Survey Library. Finding the job to be of low interest to her she spoke to a close friend who encouraged her to go back to school and pursue her master and eventually a Ph.D.[3] In 1911, she entered the University of Chicago to study bacteriology, and earned her master's degree in 1913 and her PhD in 1919, both from the University of Chicago.[1] While studying, she also worked as a bacteriologist in the Chicago Department of Health in 1915. In 1916 she became the first woman hired to work in the United States Public Health Service's Hygienic Laboratory, at the National Institutes of Health.[1][4] Ida paved the way for the hiring of additional female scientists in the NIH lab and worked alongside other influential women such as Alice Evans who went on to serve as the first woman president of the Society of American Bacteriologists.[5]

Main Impacts[edit]

Ida Bengston


Following her hiring at the NIH, Bengtson helped to discover that the 1917 tetanus outbreak running ramped across the US, could be traced back to a batch of contaminated vaccine scarifiers. After this finding, Bengston began further researching the infectious diseases presenting them selves in various communities across the United States. This research included the production of a typhus vaccine, and perhaps the most significant contribution of her career: the complement fixation test. This test led to revolutionary findings in regards to detecting the differentiation of diseases including Rocky Mountain spotted Fever and Q fever.[6]

Clostridium botulinum[edit]

Bengtson's most significant scientific achievement was in regards to an organism called Clostridium botulinum, which causes a paralytic disease in chicken. This organism was first recognized and isolated in 1895 by Emile van Ermengem from home cured ham implicated in a botulism outbreak.[7] The isolate was originally named Bacillus botulinus, after the Latin word for sausage, botulus. ("Sausage poisoning" was a common problem in 18th- and 19th-century Germany, and was most likely caused by botulism.)[8] However, isolates from subsequent outbreaks were always found to be anaerobic spore formers, so Bengtson proposed that the organism be placed in the genus Clostridium as the genus Bacillus was restricted to aerobic spore-forming rods.[9]


Based on her work with the US Public Health Service (USPHS),[10] now the NIH, she was moved to Rolla, Missouri, to begin to investigate the trachoma pandemic that was particularly widespread in the region of Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. She arrived in Rolla in 1924 and took her place in the biology lab at the Missouri School of Mines (MSM, now Missouri S&T), in the basement of Parker Hall.[11]

Bengtson ran the trachoma hospital in Rolla, one of only 4 in the country at the time. It was in a small, wood framed house on Elm Street, but it soon was too small to serve all the people who needed treatment. After Bengtson left Rolla in 1931, a new trachoma hospital was built in 1939, and today houses the Rock Mechanics and Explosives Research Center on S&T's campus.[12]

During her short time in Rolla, Bengtson worked with animals and over 1500 human patients to isolate the bacteria causing the debilitating disease. She slowed the progression of the disease in over 1000 people, and, according to The Kansas City Star, Bengtson “made Rolla the chief American battle front in the war on” trachoma.[13]


She is also known for preparing, during 1935-1936, the standard for gas gangrene toxins and anti-toxins.[14] One of Bengtson's other research interests was typhus, an exceedingly dangerous interest and she, like many other typhus researchers, eventually contracted the disease, although she recovered fully.[14] Her chapter on the family “Rickettsiaceae” appeared in the sixth edition of the influential Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology after her official retirement.[1] She was awarded the Typhus Medal of the American Typhus Commission in 1947.[15]


Ida Albertina Bengtson had a career lasting 30 years. She retired in 1946. She published and contributed substantially to the field of bacteriology and public health. Bengtson died in 1952.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d e Lindenmann, Jean (2005). "Women scientists in typhus research during the first half of the twentieth century". Gesnerus. Basel: Swiss Society for the History of Medicine and Sciences. 62 (3–4): 257–272. PMID 16689082.
  2. ^ "Early Women Scientists at NIH". National Institute of Health. NIH. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  3. ^ "Early Women Scientists at NIH". National Institute of Health. NIH. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  4. ^ Harden, Victoria A. "WWI and the Ransdell Act of 1930". A Short History of the National Institutes of Health. Office Of History National Institutes Of Health, United States National Institutes of Health. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
  5. ^ Parascandola, John. "Alice Evans, An Early Woman Scientist at NIH" (PDF). Research Gate. Public Health Service. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  6. ^ "Early Women Scientists at NIH". National Institute of Health. NIH. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  7. ^ E. van Ergmengem. 1897. Über einen neuen anaerobic Bacillus and seine Beziehungen Zum Botulismus. Zentralbl. Hyg. Infektionskr. 26:1–8.
  8. ^ Frank J. Erbguth. Historical notes on botulism, Clostridium botulinum, botulinum toxin, and the idea of the therapeutic use of the toxin. Movement Disorders. Volume 19, Issue S8, pages S2-S6, March 2004.
  9. ^ I. A. Bengston. 1924. Studies on organisms concerned as causative factors in botulism. Hyg. Lab. Bull. 136:101
  10. ^ "Obituary". Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences. 43 (7): 238–9. 1953. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ "The Kansas City Star". December 11, 1930.
  14. ^ a b "The Evening Independent - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  15. ^ "Rocky Mountain Laboratory Photographs - Dr. Ida A. Bengston". Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  16. ^ Lindenmann, Jean. "Women Scientists in Typhus Research During the First Half of the Twentieth Century" (PDF). Semantic Scholars. Gesnerus. Retrieved 19 April 2019.