From the Annals of NIH History

Women’s History: 1930s Meningitis Research

Robert Forkish and Sara Branham at a lab table working


“Know your enemy” describes the work of Sara Branham (1888–1962),  who is credited with the discovery and isolation of the virus that causes spinal meningitis. She dedicated much of her career to understanding meningitis, identifying different microbial strains, and developing the effective tests and treatments for the disease with antiserum and sulfa drugs.

In this September 1937 photo, Branham and technician Robert Forkish inoculate a mouse with meningococcal antiserum to determine whether it would protect against meningitis.

Branham received her Ph.D. and M.D. from the University of Chicago (Chicago) after teaching science in girls’ schools for several years. She left a faculty appointment at the University of Rochester (Rochester, New York) to come to the Division of Biologics Standards at the NIH’s precursor agency, the Hygienic Laboratory, where she ultimately rose to the level of chief of the Division’s Section on Bacterial Toxins. The division was charged with performing many of the functions now done by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: They studied and tried to control epidemics and standardized and tested commercial antisera and vaccines for safety and efficacy.

In the 1930s, Branham represented the United States at the first two international microbiology conferences. She retired in 1958. To learn more about her life and career, go to