Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.
This is the theme for today, this year’s International Women’s Day. It’s a day devoted to honouring the achievements of women throughout history. The day is celebrated yearly on 8th March to observe “women’s achievements and increasing visibility, while calling out inequality”.
In honour of International Women’s Day, we would like to showcase the incredible achievements of Nancy Atkinson (nee Benko / Cook), to share her story of breaking through the glass ceiling and fighting for her place in a male-dominated field.
Nancy Atkinson – Scientist
Born in Melbourne, Nancy studied for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne, majoring in chemistry but swapping to the new field of bacteriology. After graduating in 1932 with a Master of Science, she worked at the University’s Department of Bacteriology until 1937.
In 1937, Nancy moved to Adelaide and began working at The Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science (IMVS). Here she became heavily involved in the development and manufacturing of penicillin.
In 1943, Nancy was experimenting with penicillin, growing moulds from cultures shipped from Alexander Fleming in England. In a letter from Nancy to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne, dated 26 October 1943, she writes:
It is wonderful stuff. I made a little and have tried it as an ointment in a couple of staph. and strep. infections and the wounds became completely free from these organisms in about 36 hours. Both cases were chronic and had been going on for months. There is a great need for penicillin production in Australia.
In 1944, the government attempted to centralise the production of penicillin in Victoria at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) and all of Nancy’s work was handed over to them. Nancy wrote:
At a time like this when supplies of Penicillin are so urgently needed for our fighting men, any action which is likely to limit the production and discovery of better methods of production is a detriment to everyone
Being a woman in a man’s environment, particularly the military, was tough, however she was able to hold her own and stand up for herself. In a report of her visit to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL), she wrote:
I went out to Commonwealth Serum Laboratories on Friday, January 28th 1944. Before I was allowed to see anything I was taken to Dr Morgan who offered me no greeting at all and kept me waiting for some considerable time … Dr Morgan has shown no desire to assist me in my work on these anti-bacterial substances, has denied that I rendered the C.S.L. some help in this field, and even suggested in conversation that I was communicating with the C.S.L. in the hope of gaining information which I could incorporate in my own work in papers to be published later. Nevertheless, I should still be happy to offer them any further assistance in making penicillin if you so desire. My wish is to collaborate fully and freely with all bona fide scientific workers.Report of Miss Atkinson on her visit to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, 1944.
As well as working with the military on developing penicillin, Nancy was working as an Assistant Bacteriologist at the IMVS. Here, her job was to assist and supervise the routine bacteriology laboratory which examined specimens from patients in the Royal Adelaide Hospital as well as some Public Health and private work. This work allowed her to indulge in her interest of Salmonella bacteria.
“When I came to Adelaide as Assistant Bacteriologist in the new IMVS, I brought my Salmonella antisera with me … At once I got out my Salmonella anti-sera and whenever a Salmonella was found, I attempted to type it … as my Salmonella typing work became more widely known I received Salmonella isolates from other states in Australia”Salmonella summary written by Nancy Atkinson (Benko), 4 January 1981.
Nancy went on to specialise in the study of Salmonella bacteria. She is the founder of the Australian Salmonella Reference Centre and discovered a new strain of bacteria, which she named S. Adelaide.
During World War II, Nancy was appointed lecturer in bacteriology in the new Department of Bacteriology established at the University of Adelaide, as well as retaining her position at IMVS.
Nancy went on to develop and teach undergraduate/postgraduate courses in bacteriology, not just for medicine but for a variety of different faculties such as pharmacy, dentistry and agricultural sciences. She was also renowned for supporting and mentoring female scientists.
She actively promoted public health, regularly speaking to community groups on such things as food safety.
In 1950 she gave up her position at the IMVS to take on the full time role of reader-in-charge of the Department of Bacteriology. She received her doctorate in 1957 for her work on salmonella and antibiotics.
In 1959, the Chair of Microbiology at the University of Adelaide became available. Despite being the unofficial person-in-charge of the department for the last 20 years, Nancy did not get any further than the shortlist. Her gender definitely influenced the decision. She continued to work in this department until 1967 when she moved to the Department of Oral Biology, teaching microbiology to dental students. She stayed in that position until she retired in 1975.
Written by Margot Way, CALHN Health Museum