By Ashley Bowen ~
While doing some research ahead of the 50th anniversary of the rubella vaccine in June 2019, I came across an image of the team that developed the vaccine and an improved blood test. The photograph, taken by NIH photographer Jerry Hecht, shows Drs. Harry M. Meyer, Jr. (1928–2001) and Paul Parkman (b. 1932) conferring with a female scientist holding a bottle of rubella antigen. When the photograph came into the NLM’s collections several decades ago, the information associated with it read:
Drs. Harry M. Meyer, Jr. (light hair), Paul D. Parkman (dark hair), and a female lab technician of the Laboratory of Viral Immunology, Division of Biologics Standard [sic] working with rubella antigen in laboratory setting.
Just before I came across this photograph, I had been reading about the efforts of other historians and researchers to identify the women present but unidentified in the history of science and medicine. When I looked at this image and read the existing documentation, I wondered if there was more to her role in the rubella research team than is implied by the phrase “lab technician.” After all, she is holding a bottle of antigen and centered in two photographs with the men who developed the rubella vaccine. Quite frankly, I couldn’t let it go that two male researchers were identified by name while this woman was not.
I wanted (needed) to know who this woman was.
It took over a month but, thanks to some archival sleuthing here at the National Library of Medicine, help from private citizens (including the adult children of former DBS’ laboratory staff), the generous assistance of professional organizations like Graduate Women in Science, conversations with librarians and historians at various museums, universities, and federal agencies—not to mention a fair bit of luck—we have been able to identify this female lab technician as Hope Hopps (1926–1988).
Hopps was much more than a lab technician. She earned a master’s degree in microbiology from the University of Maryland in 1950, an era when few women pursued advanced degrees in the sciences. After working as a bacteriologist for a few years, Hopps joined the staff at the NIH first in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and then in the Division of Biologics Standards’ Laboratory of Viral Immunology.
As a staff member in the Laboratory of Viral Immunology in the 1960s, Hopps worked with Drs. Parkman and Meyer on several research projects, is listed as an author on several articles they published in outlets like the New England Journal of Medicine and Pediatrics, and held a patent with them for the rubella blood test. In a 2005 oral history, Dr. Parkman remembered Hopps as:
“…our—it’s an unacceptable term now I suppose—but she was our ‘Girl Friday.’ She could make any kind of cell culture grow, for example, she developed the BSC-1 cell line, which stands for biological standards culture one. It is still used for things.”
When DBS moved to the FDA in 1972, Hopps relocated with it and assumed the role of assistant to the director of biologics. She also served as the acting associate director for program development and operations. After retiring from government service, Hopps continued to work as a consultant and guest worker in the FDA’s Center for Drugs and Biologics.
Her achievements in government are matched by her contributions to science. Over the course of her career, Hopps authored or co-authored 89 articles in medical journals and books, was awarded two different patents, served as the national president of the Graduate Women in Science, and developed the BSC-1 cell line.
To me, researching this woman’s name was an opportunity to surface the role of women in both the laboratory and the historical record. It was an opportunity to ask questions, look deeper, and to reevaluate historical value judgements about who is important, who substantively contributed to the rubella research project, and who is worth knowing about. Things are changing, certainly, but the stereotype that “science is male” remains strong.
Based on this research, Ginny Roth, the Program Manager for the Prints and Photographs Program, has updated the catalog record for the photograph. I am thrilled that we could identify her and expand the record to account for her contributions to the research team and help ensure that Hopps’ contributions to the development of the rubella vaccine and blood test are remembered in the future.
This “Girl Friday” had a graduate degree, two patents, and a name. That name was Hope Hopps.
Ashley Bowen, PhD is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and Digital Engagement Manager at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. She was recently guest curator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.