Sara Branham Matthews (1888-1962)


Sara Branham graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia in 1907, becoming the third woman in her family to do so following her mother and grandmother. After teaching science in girls’ schools, Branham enrolled in the University of Colorado and then earned her Ph.D. and M.D. at the University of Chicago. While at Chicago, she taught some of the up-and-coming women scientists who would later work alongside her at the NIH. She is credited with the discovery and isolation of the virus that causes spinal meningitis, as reflected in an article about her titled “Georgia-Born Woman Doctor Uncovers Cure for the Dread Germ of Meningitis” in the Atlanta Constitution on March 6, 1939, which stated, “She killed millions of killers!” 

Sara Branham's papers are held at the National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division. Dr. Branham, a United States Public Health Service scientist, became nationally known for her studies in the field of infectious diseases and is considered one of the “grand ladies of microbiology.” In 1928, when Branham was forty years old, she was appointed to the National Institute of Health to study pathogens and investigate causes and cures for influenza. Soon she was also investigating salmonella, shigella, and diphtheria toxins and became an expert on the chemotherapy of bacterial meningitis. She became principal bacteriologist in 1950 and served as Chief of the Section on Bacterial Toxins in the Division of Biological Standards until retirement in 1958. 

Sara Branham working at her desk


Non-Journal Sources

Journal Sources

  • Sara Elizabeth Branham. "Toxic Products of Bacterium Enteritidis and of Related Micro-Organisms." Reviews of Infectious Diseases 6, no. 4 (1984): 579-86.
  • Branham, Sara Elizabeth. "The Production of Lung Hemorrhages and Associated Phenomena in Rabbits and Guinea-Pigs." The Journal of Infectious Diseases 30, no. 6 (1922): 670-80.
  • Branham, Sara Elizabeth. "Anaerobic Microorganisms in Nasopharyngeal Washings: Influenza Studies. XXXI." The Journal of Infectious Diseases 41, no. 3 (1927): 203-07.

Available Files

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Photo of Dr. Branham injecting a chick

Dr. Branham injecting a chick, 1955.  Photo credit: Vernon Taylor, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine. 

Photo of Dr. Branham seating at her desk

Dr. Branham seating at her desk, summarizing a report on a "mouse protection test." c. 1938.  Photo credit: Courtesy of the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum.

Photo of Dr. Branham inoculating a mouse

Dr. Branham is inoculating a mouse with meningococcus antiserum, Technical Attendant Robert M. Forkish assisting. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum.