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Discovering Women Scientists: The Legacy of Effie Southworth

St. Paul, MN (March 16, 2001)—It’s a renaissance of sorts. In science, art and literature the once unknown contributions of women are receiving more and more attention. Most agree the benefits of this new publicity are significant. These stories empower women and give us all, both men and women alike, a new perspective on the diversity of our nation’s history-makers. As a respected scientist and the first woman researcher hired by the USDA, Effie Southworth’s story is a perfect example.

Born in New York in 1860, Southworth was well educated, studying foreign languages, mathematics, zoology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, geology, botany, and physiology. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1885 she accepted a two-year appointment as Fellow in Biology and instructor in botany at Pennsylvania’s newly-established Bryn Mawr College.

Her reputation as a gifted scientist and skilled researcher led the USDA to offer her the position of assistant mycologist for its newly-created Section of Mycology (the first research position the USDA ever offered to a woman). As assistant mycologist, Southworth played a critical role in helping growers combat significant diseases affecting such crops as grapes, apples, and oats.

But by far her most significant and lasting contribution was her 1891 discovery of a previously unknown fungus (Colletotrichum gossypii) causing cotton anthracnose which was responsible for killing thousands of acres of cotton each year. “This was an enormously important research finding,” states Jean Ristaino, a plant pathologist at North Carolina State University. “At the time there was real concern. This was a deadly disease and once it struck a field of cotton, it easily wiped out 75% of the yield. And since cotton was a major economic crop, the inability to identify and get this disease under control raised the real possibility that a significant portion of the country’s businesses could be devastated.” Not only did Southworth identify the culprit, but she provided growers with measures for its control as well.

“It’s interesting to note,” states Ristaino, “that her fellow scientists believed the disease was caused by another fungus. But Southworth persisted, despite the doubts of her colleagues, in proving her theory that it was a new, previously unknown fungus. You have to admire that kind of professional courage in anyone, man or a woman, but particularly a woman during a period of time in which women’s abilities were often considered questionable.”

Effie Southworth’s life and research is the subject of this month’s feature story on the APS website. For more information, visit APSnet. The American Phytopathological Society (APS) is a nonprofit, professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant diseases, with 5,000 members worldwide.