Mattiedna Johnson wasn’t a microbiologist by trade – she was a nurse – but that didn’t stop her from helping in the race to develop lifesaving antibiotics.

Born in 1918 to Mississippi sharecroppers, Johnson was a high school salutatorian before graduating from nursing school in Memphis, TN, and starting work as a registered nurse.

In the 1930s and early ’40s, there were hundreds of thousands of cases of scarlet fever in the United States, mostly in children. Before antibiotics, around 20% of cases resulted in death. At a scarlet fever isolation ward in St. Louis, an infant succumbed to the…


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