“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman."
Antibiotics are a ubiquitous part of our lives today. However, antibiotics have only been around since the late 1920s, when they were first discovered and applied to clinical practice. Streptomycin was the second clinically effective antibiotic after penicillin, the first medicine capable of defeating tuberculosis, and was at the center of a major patent controversy.
Who was Elizabeth Bugie and what part did she play in the discovery of streptomycin?
Why she didn’t become famous for her role?
Is she just one of the many women in science lost to history?
I contacted one of her daughters, Professor Eileen Gregory, who has had a lengthy career as a microbiologist at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She provided me with an article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Elizabeth Bugie's death in 2001. In the article, Gregory and her sister, Patricia Camp, talk about their mother’s involvement in the discovery of streptomycin. According to Camp, her mother’s colleagues told her it wasn’t important that her name be on the patent because she would one day get married and have a family. Bugie said later to her daughters, “If women's lib had been around, my name would have been on the patent."
Gregory also helped me to uncover the rest of the story by connecting me with Dr. Douglas Eveleigh from Rutgers University, where streptomycin was discovered. He recently worked with Dr. Joan Bennett to co-author a chapter entitled “Women Microbiologists at Rutgers in the Early Golden Age of Antibiotics” in the book Women in Microbiology published by the American Society for Microbiology. This chapter helps unravel the story about several women who played a key part in contributing to the development of antibiotics – including Elizabeth Bugie.
Elizabeth Bugie (October 5,1920 – April 10, 2001) was a master’s degree student at Waksman’s laboratory at Rutgers University who previously completed a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at New Jersey College for Women (today’s Douglass Residential College). Waksman was an established scientist in the field of microbiology and his goal was to find the second clinically effective antimicrobial substance after penicillin. His laboratory efforts led to the discovery of streptomycin - the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis that was non-toxic to humans. The results were published in the Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology where Schatz is listed as the first author, Bugie the second, and Waksman is last author (3). In spite of her authorship on the paper, Bugie’s name was noticeably absent from the patent submission. Waksman alone received the Nobel prize and took all credit for the discovery. Schatz sued him to get his share from the royalties arising from the patent and full recognition for the discovery. Neither acknowledged Bugie as more than just an assistant researcher whose work only confirmed their results (1, 4). Interestingly, his claim contrasts with the fact that Bugie was awarded royalties for her work: although small, she received 0.2% of the streptomycin discovery royalties. Out of the remainder, 3% is given to Schatz, and 10% to Waksman (4, 5).
Bugie was an important member of Waksman’s laboratory. She was an excellent microbiologist who worked on the development of other antimicrobial substances (5). Her master’s degree focused on the optimisation of the production of flavicin and chaetomin isolated from Aspergillus flavus and Chaetomium cochliodes (6) and resulted in two peer-reviewed publications (7, 8). She also isolated and characterised micromonosporin – a pigmented glycoprotein active against gram positive bacteria (9). A notable part of Bugie’s work was her research of antimicrobials against plant pathogens like the ‘elm killing’ fungus Dutch elm disease (10). After leaving Rutgers University she joined the nearby Merck laboratory where she evaluated the activity of penicillin and pyrazinoic acid amide against Mycobacterium tuberculosis (5). “Her studies formed a strong fundamental basis for the early antibiotic studies,” Eveleigh summarized in a personal correspondence.
Most importantly, Bugie pursued lab work because of her love for science and gratitude for the opportunity to conduct research (4). After graduating, she married another notable microbiologist, Francis Joseph Gregory, who was a member of the Waksman team. Bugie changed her last name to Gregory and did what was expected of women during these years – raised a family. She later returned to school to graduate in library sciences (4).
Bugie’s degree choice was quite unusual for that time, so I asked her daughter, Eileen Gregory, what was the reason behind it.
Gregory kindly answered, “I believe that it was my grandfather, Charles A. Bugie, who is responsible for my mother achieving as much as she did. My grandfather believed that education was the key to a successful life. He never had the opportunity to study beyond high school and wanted to make sure that my mother had opportunities that he did not have. He established and ran his own steel company, but I remember him mostly as someone who could build anything and was constantly taking things apart to see how they worked. My mother inherited this curiosity about how things worked and like my grandfather, could fix anything. She had a very analytical mind and loved a challenge. I think that if the field had been open to women she might have pursued a career in engineering or physics. Biology was an acceptable science field for women at that time so that is what she ended up studying.”
I asked Gregory if her mother left any life advice that helped in pursuing her own career. She said, “Like my father, my mother encouraged my sister and I to enter a profession that we enjoyed. I actually started my college career as a theater major. Both my parents supported me in this decision but asked that I just take at least one science course. I took a course in introductory microbiology and found it fascinating and changed majors immediately. I felt that this was a field that I would not only enjoy, but in which I could be successful.”
Elizabeth Bugie was an astonishing person who didn’t care for fame, but her contribution to the discovery of antibiotics saved millions of people and is quietly documented in numerous sources. For this, she should be recognized.
I hope that readers will not only learn something new about the history of science, but will remember the wise advice she gave to her daughters.
Acknowledgements: I would like to sincerely thank Professor Eileen Gregory and Professor Douglas Eveleigh for helping me to write this article.
1. Ginsberg, Judah. 2005. Selman Waksman and Antibiotics. National Historic Chemical Landmark. The American Chemical Society https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/selmanwaksman.html#discovery-of-streptomycin-controversy
2. Encyclopaedia Britannica – Streptomycin
3. Schatz A, Bugie E, Waksman SA. 1944. Streptomycin, a substance exhibiting antibiotic activity against gram positive and gram negative bacteria. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 55:66 – 69.
4. Snowbeck, Christopher. 14 April 2001. Obituary: Elizabeth Gregory: did McCandless woman get fair shake for role in discovery of streptomycin? Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, PA.
5. Eveleigh, Douglas E. and Joan W. Bennett. 2018. Women Microbiologists at Rutgers in Golden Age of Antibiotics. In: Women in Microbiology (eds. Rachel J. Whitaker and Hazel A. Barton), Chapter 34. American Society for Microbiology, Washington, DC.
6. Bugie, Elizabeth J. 1944. Production of antibiotic substances by Aspergillus flavus and Chaetomium cochliodes. M.Sc. Thesis. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, N.J.
7. Waksman, SA, Bugie, E. 1943. Strain specificity and production of antibiotic substances. II. Aspergillus flavus-oryzae Group. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sciences, U.S. 29:282-288.
8. Waksman SA, Bugie E.1944. Chaetomin, a new antibiotic substance produced by Chaetomium cochliodes: I. Formation and properties. J Bacteriol. 48:527-30.
9. Waksman SA, Geiger WB, Bugie E.1947. Micromonosporin, an antibiotic substance from a little known group of microorganisms. J. Bact. 53 355-357
10. Waksman SA, Bugie E. 1943. Action of antibiotic substances upon Ceratostomella ulmi. Proc. Soc. Expert. Biol. & Medicine. 54:79-82.
Lidiya’s curiosity about “how life works” led her to complete a Master’s degree in Biology and a PhD in Microbiology. She worked as a researcher at the National Institute of Health in Rockville, MD, USA and is currently a science communicator and writer. She hopes that one day her innovative ideas will be applied in practice even if she is away from the lab. Lidiya loves to travel and has lived in many countries. She is still looking for a place to settle down with her young daughter. Lidiya is thrilled to be a part of the Scientista bloggers team, and loves being able to connect with wonderful female scientists at all stages of their careers, while writing about science and life.