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Physiology’s Hidden Genius

A pioneering female researcher journeys from the factory to the laboratory.

In the early part of the 20th century, biologists were just beginning to investigate the chemical reactions that occur within cells. Ida Hyde’s invention of the microelectrode, a device essential to the study of muscle and brain cells (see “Mind-Machine Merger”), was a landmark achievement, but she was not recognized for the invention in her lifetime.

As a teenager in the 1870s, Hyde helped support her family by working as an apprentice at a Chicago clothing factory. In spite of her family’s disapproval, Hyde’s ambitions were in academia, not women’s wear. After years of night school classes, Hyde was accepted at Cornell University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1891 and continued with graduate work at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.

The young scholar gained international attention when her research on octopus embryos settled a controversy between two European biologists. That achievement led to her admission to the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Because Hyde was a woman, she was prohibited from attending certain lectures and had to learn from other students’ notes. She returned to the United States in 1896 to become the first female researcher at Harvard Medical School.

Hyde’s research caught the attention of University of Kansas chancellor Francis Snow, who hired her to build the school’s physiology department. During her tenure there, Hyde studied the respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems of a wide range of organisms, from grasshoppers to humans. Greatly concerned about public health and women’s education, she also lectured throughout the Midwest about sexually transmitted diseases, using nude Greek statues as models.

Hyde accomplished her most impressive scientific achievement at the end of her career in 1918. While studying single-celled organisms, she developed a device that could inject or remove substances from individual cells and simultaneously stimulate the cells electrically. The technique, which Hyde reported in 1921, would revolutionize physiology. Today microelectrodes are used to monitor electrical impulses in the brain. It wasn’t until the microelectrode was reinvented 20 years later by Judith Graham and Ralph Gerard of the University of Chicago-apparently with no knowledge of Hyde’s earlier work-that the invention took off.

Although Hyde received no attention for her ingenious device, her legacy lives on. The University of Kansas continues to award scholarships from a fund she established to create opportunities for women in biology.

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