Evelyn Nicol

This week for WiSE Wednesday we’re featuring Evelyn Carmon Nicol (1930-2020) a molecular biologist and immunologist whose work led to the development of multiple medical testing kits including one for HIV and led her to become one of the first African Americans to obtain a patent in molecular biology. She fought discrimination and sexism for her whole career and retired from her position as a Senior Scientist at Padnex, a division of Baxter Pharmaceuticals in 1990 where she led a team of mostly women. She passed away at age 89 in 2020.

Evelyn Nicol received her undergraduate degree from Tuskegee University. She originally began her studies as a home economics major but quickly switched her major to chemistry and mathematics so she could have a future different from what anyone imagined of her. 

She excelled in her field from the beginning. Early in her career she worked as a molecular biologist and research assistant on the Salk Polio Vaccine Project producing HeLa cells. She was also the first to isolate the herpes zoster virus from amniotic cells in culture.  

She then began working for Rand Development Corporation where she worked on immunology projects, then she moved to the pathology department at Abbott Laboratories where she became one of the first African Americans to be awarded a microbiology patent, relating to work on Urokinase (used to dissolve blood clots) production methods. While at Abbott, she also developed a test for pregnant women for Toxoplasma Gondii and a better Interferon assay for the company.

When she reached a position of power she fought for other women as well. In one case she rescued an African American woman’s application from the trash after she had been rejected by a panel of all white men despite being very qualified and hired her. Her team at Pandex (a hepatitis research and development group at Baxter Pharmaceuticals) where she was a senior scientist was mostly women though the rest of the company was mostly men. She became the head of the Retro Virology Division which produced successful HTLV and HIV testing kits. When the company was purchased by Abbott in 1990 she decided to retire after a 40 year career.

Throughout her life she was a great proponent of education both formal and informal. She fought for her children to have the same opportunities afforded to them as white children and encouraged her employees to never stop learning and to always be the most knowledgeable person in the room when giving a presentation. 

Entry courtesy of Claire Regan

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