Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Biochemist Florence Barbara Seibert developed a groundbreaking
procedure that lead to the standard tuberculosis test used to
detect the potentially deadly bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis,
in infants, children and adults around the world in the 1930s.
Born in Easton, Penn., on October 6, 1897, Seibert contracted
polio as a small child and lived for the rest of her life
with a slight disability that affected the way she walked.
This challenge did not interfere with her work; rather she
excelled in her studies and earned an A.B. from Gaucher College
in Baltimore in 1918 where she studied chemistry and zoology.
From there she moved on to Yale University where she completed
a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1923.
As part of her graduate work, with advisor Dr. Lafayette
Mendel, Seibert worked on a method of eliminating bacterial
contamination that was known to occur during the creation
of solutions meant for vaccinations and injections. Patients
could experience sudden fevers or illness during or after
an injection or intravenous treatment. Such afflictions, Seibert
discovered, were most often caused by bacterial contamination
of the distilled water used to make the solutions. She was
able to eliminate this contamination using a special apparatus
and procedure she created for this purpose. This would be
a great boon later not only for administering drugs but also
for making blood transfusions safer during surgery.
In 1923 Seibert became a Porter Fellow at the University
of Chicago, and, from 1924 to 1928, she served as a pathology
instructor there. She became an assistant professor of biochemistry
in 1928. In 1932, she accepted a post as assistant professor
of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania's Henry
Phipps Institute, where she would spend the rest of her career.
While working for the Phipps Institute, Seibert traveled
widely, working with such institutions as the University of
Uppsala in Sweden. In the mid-1930s her work culminated with
her development of the purified protein derivative, or PPD,
that would become the basis for what is today known as the
Standard TB Test.
Tuberculosis is a relatively rare bacterial infection that
primarily affects the lungs. It can infect and become dormant
for months or years, but once detected, it is treatable with
a course of antibiotics over several months. Active TB is
highly contagious, however. Thousands are afflicted in the
United States each year. A few hundred typically die, many
of them infants.
Seibert's breakthrough procedure was readily accepted by
the medical community. In 1938 she was awarded the Trudeau
Medal from the National Tuberculosis Association for this
work. Her TB test became standard in the United States in
1941, and a year later, was adopted by the World Health Organization
as well. That year, the American Chemical Society awarded
her the Garvan Medal.
Seibert rose to the rank of full professor at the Phipps
Institute and, upon retirement in 1959, she was appointed
professor emeritus. She did not stop working that year, however.
Rather she changed focus, and began working on a largely volunteer
basis for 30 more years. During these last years of her life
she focused on research examining the etiology of cancer,
particularly cancers posing grave risk to women, including
breast cancer. In 1990 she was inducted into the National
Women's Hall of Fame. She died on August 23, 1991, at the
age of 93.