The National Institute of Health captioned this photo, “Evelyn Butler Tilden poses with the one constant in her life—a microscope.” From her early work with Dr. Hideyo Noguchi in 1916 to her role as head of the laboratories of Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo until 1974, Tilden was never far away from a microscope and her love of microbiology. You can imagine that over those 50+ years Tilden thoroughly enjoyed her work.
By most accounts, science wasn’t the likely path for Tilden. She graduated with an undergraduate degree in English and, via a hiring agency, began working at the Rockefeller Institute as an editor for Dr. Noguchi (who spoke Japanese and knew limited English). But Tilden’s obvious intelligence and abilities led Dr. Noguchi to make her one of his laboratory assistants and for the Rockefeller Institute to pay for her PhD work at Columbia. In a letter to one of her supporters at the Institute, Dr. Simon Flexner, Tilden remarked on her studies:
If I carried the maximum work, winter and summer, I suppose I could finish in two years, but it is more entertaining to take it slowly. I set out chiefly for entertainment, but I have now embarked on a serious undertaking!
Noguchi even praised Tilden’s work in his 1921 research article “A note on the venereal Spirochetosis of rabbits: A new technique for staining Treponema pallidum,” noting that she developed the new staining technique:
A new procedure has been worked out by Miss Evelyn B. Tilden in my laboratory by which both Treponema cuniculi and Treponema pallidum can be stained very distinctly…. The procedure promises to be of practical value in the routine diagnosis of syphilis … because of its simplicity.
But that was just the beginning of innovative work by Tilden. She helped to complete Noguchi’s research after he passed away from yellow fever in the field, showing that two diseases – Oroya fever and verruga peruviana – were really the same disease. While working at the National Institute of Health, she developed a new method for obtaining rare sugars from avocados to study as carbohydrates. And at Brookfield Zoo she developed a cure for a fungal disease, aspergillosis, causing fatal lung problems for the captive penguins.
Tilden passed away in 1983, leaving behind a lifetime of important research in microbiology and a love for the work. As a colleague noted in her obituary: “She was a marvelous lady. She was vibrant … She was interested in everything and could enthrall you with conversation.”
- Aspergillosis (National Wildlife Health Center) – http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/publications/field_manual/chapter_13.pdf
- Creating a Tradition of Biomedical Research: Contributions to the History of the Rockefeller University (Darwin H. Stapleton) – http://www.worldcat.org/title/creating-a-tradition-of-biomedical-research-contributions-to-the-history-of-the-rockefeller-university/oclc/491547681
- Early Women Scientists of NIH, Part 1 (NIH) – https://irp.nih.gov/blog/post/2016/03/early-women-scientists-of-nih-part-1
- “The preparation of perseulose by oxidation of perseitol with Acetobacter suboxydans” by Evelyn B. Tilden (1938) – http://jb.asm.org/content/37/6/629.full.pdf
Written by Eric Dillalogue
Eric Dillalogue holds a MS in Library and Information Science and a BA in English. He has worked in a variety of roles from service industry management, academic libraries, and grant administration. He has taught courses on information literacy, web research, and developmental reading. Eric joined the Visionlearning team as a project manager in 2014.