Sara Branham Matthews

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Sara Branham, injecting a chick,1955
Sara Branham inoculating antiserum into a mouse to determine whether it would protect against meningitis, Robert Forkish assisting, 1937
Sara Branham summarizing report on a "mouse protection test," ca 1938
NIH Division of Biologics Control, with Sara Branham, 1938

Sara Elizabeth Branham Matthews (1888–1962) was an American microbiologist and physician best known for her research into the isolation and treatment of Neisseria meningitidis, a causative organism of meningitis.


Branham was born July 25, 1888 in Oxford, Georgia. Like her mother and grandmother had done, she attended Wesleyan College and graduated with a B.S. degree in biology in 1907.[1][2] She became a science teacher, working for ten years in Georgia's public school system.[1] She was hired by the University of Colorado in 1917 as a bacteriology teacher, since there was a shortage of men from the department during World War I. She completed a second B.S. degree at the university in 1919, majoring in chemistry and zoology, and stated that "When the war was over, I was too deep in bacteriology to ever get out again."[2] With a desire to enter the field of medical research, she then enrolled at the University of Chicago where she completed, all with honors, a M.S. degree, a Ph.D. degree in bacteriology, and a M.D. degree.[2]

In 1927, Branham began working for what is now the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland as a senior bacteriologist, and remained in the role for over 25 years until she was promoted to the chief of the Division of Biological Standards in 1955.[3] Broadly, her research was based in the field of infectious diseases, including influenza, salmonella, shigella, diphtheria, dysentery, and psittacosis.[1][4] The main focus of Branham's work at the NIH, however, was meningitis. She is credited with the discovery and isolation of Neisseria meningitidis, a common causative organism of meningitis,[4] as well as the discovery that the infection could be treated with sulfa drugs.[3] Her studies in infectious disease were nationally known, and she came to be considered as one of the "grand ladies of microbiology".[4]

Branham retired from the NIH in 1958 at the age of seventy from the position of Chief of the Section on Bacterial Toxins,[5] and died November 16, 1962.[1][3] She was married to Philip S. Matthews.[1]

Awards and honors[edit]

Branham was awarded Wesleyan College's first Distinguished Service Award in 1950, and later received similar awards from the Universities of Colorado and Chicago. In 1959, she was honored as the American Medical Women's Association's Medical Woman of the Year, and in 1992 she was named as one of the Georgia Women of Achievement.[1]

Her papers are held at the National Library of Medicine.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Sara Branham Matthews". Georgia Women of Achievement. October 20, 2005. Retrieved June 3, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c "Sara Branham Matthews Class of 1907". Wesleyan College. Retrieved June 3, 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c Ogilvie, Marilyn; Harvey, Joy (2000). "Branham, Sara Elizabeth (1888–1962)". Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Routledge. pp. 349–350. ISBN 9781135963439. 
  4. ^ a b c "Early Women Scientists at NIH". National Institutes of Health. Retrieved June 3, 2014. 
  5. ^ NIH Office of History and Stetten Museum. "Know your enemy". National Institutes of Health (NIH). Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  6. ^ "Sara E. Branham Papers". U.S. National Library of Medicine.