Margaret E. Meyer
Professor of Veterinary Public Health, Emeritus
Margaret Meyer, internationally recognized for her research on brucellosis, a zoonotic bacterial disease caused by Brucellla organisms, passed away October 8, 2010 at age 87 years. Margaret’s life partner, Mary Donaldine Grass, predeceased her.
Margaret was born in Westwood, a small lumber town in northeastern California. When she was in the second grade, the Great Depression caused the shutdown of the local lumber industry and the family left Westwood settling in Sacramento. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1945 with a BS degree in Public Health from the School of Public Health. She chose public health because of an early interest, which ultimately blossomed into a classically productive University of California Professorship, and the parallel story of a pioneering woman determined to achieve it.
After a brief stint as an analyst at the National Institutes of Health convinced her that a career in statistics was not for her, she approached Dean Hart of the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis for employment opportunities. She was hired by Professor Hugh Cameron in 1947 to work in the School’s Brucellosis Laboratory as a beginning laboratory technician. She said later “the field was wide open” and she “became hooked on disease research.” Her desire was to obtain a Ph.D. degree in Comparative Pathology, but her way was blocked by the requirement of a DVM degree for acceptance. Later the DVM requirement was dropped, and she was accepted in the graduate academic program while still working in the brucellosis laboratory, ultimately as Principal Laboratory Technician. She obtained her Ph.D. degree in Comparative Pathology in 1961, the first woman on the UC Davis campus to attain this degree.
Margaret’s Ph.D. thesis research findings significantly benefitted long-standing efforts to control brucellosis infection in both people and animals throughout the United States and the rest of the world. She developed a unique method, based on oxidative metabolism, to distinguish the three main Brucella species and several biotypes geographically limited to certain hosts. Prior to her research, there was no agreed upon, uniform method to identify species of Brucella and, for that reason, it was not possible to elucidate the epidemiology of brucellosis, identify reservoirs, or trace routes of infection from source to cases of the illness.
Shortly after completion of her thesis, the World Health Organization (WHO) sponsored her on an 18-month appointment to the United Kingdom as a brucellosis consultant to the British Ministry of Agriculture, Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge. During this stay in the UK, which she later described as “a glorious period,” she had access to all Brucella isolates from all of the Commonwealth countries, other parts of the world, and from all known hosts. The WHO subsequently recommended her metabolic typing method and by the early 1970s it was used in typing centers in England, Germany, France, Russia, Turkey, India, Argentina, South Africa, Mexico, and the United States. Margaret served as a consultant to these countries. Likewise her method was adopted by the International Committee on Bacterial Nomenclature as the accepted method of defining, describing, and identifying all species and biotypes of the genus Brucella.
Following her return from the UK, she decided she wanted to be the “boss of her career” and Dean Pritchard of the School of Veterinary Medicine suggested she apply for a U.S. Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health (USPHS, NIH) Research Career Award for Independent Research. She was successful in receiving an eight-year award at the end of which she had attained the title Research Microbiologist in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Margaret was the first woman on the Davis campus and the only woman in the veterinary field, at the time, to receive this award.
Margaret was subsequently appointed Professor of Veterinary Public Health, and Microbiologist in the Agricultural Experiment Station in the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine (EPM), School of Veterinary Medicine. She was the first woman appointed to a tenured professorship by the School and the only woman in the U.S. to hold this title in this discipline. She had attained the rank of Professor Step V at the time of her retirement in 1987.
Her research publications, directed toward diagnosis, pathogenesis, identification and taxonomy of the Brucella organism, the disease in nature and its control, has been cited extensively in the international literature. It is of great interest that 25 percent of the referenced literature in a 2010 Brucella research paper was Margaret’s work. She traveled throughout the world investigating brucellosis outbreaks, consulting with agencies and organizations, and presenting papers. She determined that a serious illness in Alaskan Eskimos was caused by a new biotype of Brucella suis, concurrently infecting Alaskan reindeer, and traced the biotype to infected reindeer introduced to Alaska from Siberia aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service ship the “Bear” in the late 1800s. She investigated brucellosis infection in semi-nomadic Bedouins in Southern Palestine and traced it to unpasteurized contaminated goat cheese. She found swine infection in Denmark to be caused by Brucella suis biotype 2, that the natural host was the common hare rather than swine, and showed that preventing access of the hares to swine populations would lead to control. At the request of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, she investigated and wrote a control program to combat serious bovine brucellosis infection in Libyan dairy centers, and traveled to Jordan to consult on Brucella vaccine production.
Margaret taught formal courses in Applied Epidemiology and Public Health and Food Safety primarily to graduate professional students in the School’s Master of Preventive Veterinary Medicine curriculum, and instructed them on research methodology. In addition, she served as the major professor for both graduate professional and graduate academic students.
She served as Acting Chair of the EPM Department and Director of the MPVM program, the first woman to do each. She served on many School and campus committees, including the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Women, and was an active member of many professional societies and organizations. She was elected Fellow of the American Public Health Association, General Chair of the National Brucellosis Technical Advisory Committee to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (for six years), and Honorary Affiliate of the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists, the first woman to be so honored.
In retirement Margaret remained professionally active, among other activities serving as a consultant and expert witness to the Yellowstone National Park on brucellosis in bison, cattle, and elk. Her hobby, she said, was “following the old silk route through China, Mongolia, and Pakistan,” and she traveled over much of it. She pursued an interest in photography by joining the Sierra and Auburn camera clubs and entered international competitions gaining acceptances from Austrian, Netherlands, and other exhibitions for her travel photos. She enjoyed golf and hiking and also served as forewoman of the Sacramento County Grand Jury.
Margaret stated in her 1999 video interview by the UC Davis Emeriti Association that she was “lucky to have a job that turned me on every day.” Similarly, the University, School of Veterinary Medicine, EPM Department, and colleagues are fortunate to have known and worked with Margaret over the years.
William R. Pritchard
Richard H. McCapes, Chair