Feature Story | 13-Dec-2023

Microbiologist Barbara Iglewski, Champion of Female Scientists and National Women’s Hall of Fame Member, passes away

University of Rochester Medical Center

Scientist Barbara H. Iglewski, who was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2015 for her research on how bacteria cause infections, passed away on Sunday, December 10 at the age of 85.

The first female department chair at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Iglewski was especially interested in bolstering the careers of young women, both in Rochester and across the country. From 1990 to 1999 she led the publications board for the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). At that time, very few women served on editorial boards, and Iglewski made it her mission to change that. She appointed female editors-in-chief and “lobbied hard” to get male editors-in-chief to appoint women as editors and editorial board members. She also helped many women obtain editorial positions at other scientific journals.

Similarly, she was tireless in her efforts to advocate for salary equity for female scientists. When she came to the University of Rochester in 1986, salaries weren’t discussed between departments. She set out to make them more equitable, starting in her own department.

“Several women had vastly inferior salaries to men at comparable stages,” said Iglewski. “I said I would only come to the university if I could change that. And I did. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

“Barbara paved the way for many other female scientists and leaders both here at the University of Rochester and across the country,” said University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry’s Vice Dean for Research Stephen Dewhurst, Ph.D., who considered her a great mentor and friend.

The daughter of a country physician, Iglewski grew up accompanying her father on house calls and playing with microscopes in his office. Her passion for science was no surprise, and her discovery that bacteria use a communication system—a type of chemical language—to coordinate attacks on human cells and initiate disease launched an entire field of study into how the system works in many types of bacteria.

Recruited to Rochester from Oregon Health & Science University in 1986, Iglewski led the department of Microbiology and Immunology for 23 years. When she arrived in Rochester and for many years after, Iglewski was the sole woman amongst the school’s scientific department chairs. She went above and beyond the call of duty to prove herself, working all day and frequently returning to work late at night. In 1987, a year into her tenure as department chair, Iglewski served as president of ASM, the largest single life science society in the United States.

“She had a drive that you would not believe and her energy was just incredible,” said Dara W. Frank, PhD, professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical College of Wisconsin who was a post-doctoral fellow in Iglewski’s lab. “Her time was like gold but her door was always open to instruct each of us, to listen to our concerns and to immediately solve whatever problem was impeding our progress. I will never understand how she was able to do what she did every day and also be able to fulfill all the demands of home and family.”

After earning her PhD in microbiology from Penn State University, Iglewski held her first position as an instructor at the Oregon Health & Science University. In addition to serving as chair of Microbiology and Immunology, she was the first female vice provost for research and graduate education at the University of Rochester, a position she held from 1995 to 1998. She was recognized with the University of Rochester’s George Eastman Medal in 2019, which honors individuals whose achievements and service embody the University of Rochester’s highest ideals. She also received the School of Medicine and Dentistry’s Lifetime Mentoring Award in 2009, the Susan B. Anthony Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001, and the Arthur Kornberg Research Award in 1999.

She was recognized by the Institute of Scientific Information as a highly cited scientist, a group that makes up less than 0.5 percent of all publishing researchers. In 2017 she received an honorary degree from her undergraduate Alma Mater, Alleghany College.

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