Skip Navigation Bar
National Intitutes of Health
This finding aids platform will be replaced in Fall 2022. Please explore the new platform Beta soft release by visiting

Sara E. Branham Papers 1930-1986 (bulk 1930-1962)
full text File Size: 14 K bytes | Add this to my bookbag


Biographical Note

Sarah Elizabeth Branham was born July 25, 1888 in Oxford, Georgia. Originally a biology teacher, she eventually became a major figure in the world of bacteriology. She received her degree in biology from Wesleyan College (Macon, GA) in 1907 and continued to earn graduate degrees in zoology and chemistry (University of Colorado, 1919), in bacteriology (PhD, University of Chicago, 1920; 1923; 1934), and her MD in 1934, also from Chicago.

When she first arrived in Chicago in 1919, the aeteology of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic was a continuing problem, so her advisor suggested influenza for her thesis. Her ensuing research on filterable agents was productive, leading to over a dozen publications, and eventually to her earning an Instructor position.

In 1927, she became an Associate at the University of Rochester School of Medicine under the tutelage of Stanhope Bayne-Jones. Shortly after arriving at the University, her career took a new path thanks to an outbreak of meningococcus that had arrived in California from China. The Hygenic Laboratory of the United States Public Health Service (the predecessor of the National Institutes of Health) brought her in to investigate the deadly outbreak. It was during this time that Branham began studying the Nesisseria meningitides strain of the disease: she eventually became an international expert on it, staying at NIH the remainder of her career. In time, Branham was the first to show that sulfa drugs were more effective than the antiserum of the time to combat meningitis. While at NIH, Branham also studied the toxins produced by Shigella dysenteriae and contributed greatly to the taxonomy of Neisseria. As recognition for her work with Neisseria, the non-pathogenic strain Neisseria catarrhalis was renamed Branhamella (catarrhalis) in 1974.

Numerous honors were bestowed on Branham over the years, including the Howard Taylor Ricketts Prize in 1924 from the University of Chicago, honorary degrees from the University of Chicago (1937) and Wesleyan College (1950), and Woman of the Year from the American Medical Women's Association (1959). She was also active in many scientific societies, including the Society of American Bacteriologists (later, the American Society for Microbiology). She was a delegate at the First and Second International Congresses in Microbiology in 1930 (Paris) and 1936 (London).

A student and later colleague of hers commented that she was as comfortable entertaining in a chiffon dress as she was in a lab coat. She kept a meticulous home and lawn and was a knowledgeable ornithologist and gardener. In 1945, at the age of 57, she married Philip S. Matthews, a retired businessman. Matthews passed away four years later and Branham never married again. Branham passed away suddenly following a heart attack at the age of 74, on November 16, 1962. She was buried in her family plot in Oxford, Georgia.