Dr. Ruth Tunnicliff – Bacteriologist / Developed First Inoculation for Measles
Ruth May Tunnicliff was the youngest of three remarkable sisters born in Macomb. Like her sisters, Ruth was tutored at their home, probably by her mother, and then attended Vassar College and received her A.B. degree with Phi Beta Kappa honors at the age of 19, as did her sisters.
Ruth took pre-med courses at the University of Chicago in the late 1890’s, followed by medical study at the Women’s Medical College at Northwestern University and then Rush Medical College. She received her M.D. from Rush in 1903 in the first class to graduate women (nine women and 250 men).
Dr. Tunnicliff did pioneering research on various types of streptococci. Her major work included the discovery of the diplococcus present in the secretions (eyes, nose, mouth) of measles patients in 1917. Tunnicliff produced measles in animals and then worked out a serum. She was the first to develop an inoculation to prevent this devastating yet common disease, which in the early 20th century attacked some three to four million Americans every year. Tunnicliff’s serum, if given within 1-2 days after exposure, could successfully prevent measles.
Her achievements were remarkable, but she always struggled against gender bias. Despite being a distinguished research bacteriologist at the renowned McCormick Institute, she was never accepted as a teaching faculty member because of her gender.
Dr. Ruth Tunnicliff is interned in Macomb’s Oakwood Cemetery.