In Memoriam

Pioneering Molecular Biologist Dies of COVID-19 at 89

Marcia Frellick

July 01, 2020

Almost 30 years before Evelyn Carmon Nicol would become one of the few African Americans ever to earn a patent in molecular biology, she was enrolled at Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1949 as a home economics major.

She was assigned the major, her son, Olufemi Nicol, told Medscape Medical News, because her previous work experience through her high school years in Kentucky had been as a maid. Her college adviser steered her toward domestic studies.

But after a week she changed her major to chemistry — although she had never taken a chemistry class — precisely because it was so far removed from the future other people envisioned for her, her son said.

Four years later, she would graduate at the top of her class with a joint degree in chemistry and mathematics, ready to start what would be a nearly 40-year career of contributing to medical advances related to blood clot therapy, the herpes zoster virus, toxoplasmosis, and HIV while confronting racism and sexism in a white- and male-dominated field.

Evelyn Carmon Nicol

 

Nicol died 6 days shy of her 90th birthday, on May 27, from complications of COVID-19, her son, the youngest of her three children, confirmed. Originally from Waukegan, Illinois, she lived the last 3 years of her life in Weston, Connecticut.

Taking a difficult path was a constant throughout her life, Olufemi Nicol said. He sat down with her 10 years ago and they documented her story together.

After graduation in 1953, Nicol stayed at Tuskegee to join the Carver Research Foundation, where she worked as a molecular biologist and research assistant on the production of HeLa cells, the first immortal human cell line named for the cervical cancer patient they came from — Henrietta Lacks — for the Salk polio vaccine trials.  

In 1955, she began working at what was then the Cleveland City Hospital in Ohio under Frederick C. Robbins, MD, and John F. Enders, PhD, who in 1954 won the Nobel Prize for their work studying the growth of poliovirus in tissue cultures.  

While at the Cleveland City Hospital, she isolated the herpes zoster virus using amniotic cells in tissue culture, something not previously accomplished, her son said.

Patent Awarded

In 1962, Nicol joined Abbott Laboratories as a research assistant. Her work there was recognized with a patent, awarded on January 6, 1976, for developing a way to boost the production of the protein urokinase by up to 100% to help dissolve blood clots.

Nicol at Abbott Laboratories in the 1960s

 

"It was believed at the time she was the only African American to be awarded a patent in molecular biology," her son said.

Also during her years at Abbott, in the 1980s, Nicol developed a Toxoplasma gondii screening test for pregnant women. Nicol worked in various Abbott departments, including pharmacology, pathology, and infectious diseases, a spokesperson for Abbott confirmed.

Joseph Firca, PhD, worked at Abbott during some of the same years as Nicol and knew of her accomplishments, he told Medscape Medical News.

In 1985 he was working at Baxter Pharmaceuticals' Pandex company in Mundelein, Illinois, and needed a senior scientist to lead a research and development team that would make diagnostic tests for blood-borne diseases. He knew who he needed, and he went to introduce himself to Nicol in her lab and make her an offer.

"You want the very best because you're working with dangerous organisms," he said. "I knew she was working with Toxoplasma and with viruses, so I knew she knew how to handle the organisms. I was looking for leadership as well, not just to create the assay, but to run a group."

Nicol accepted the challenge and led Pandex's Retrovirology Division, primarily responsible for human T-cell lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1) and HIV testing kits, until she retired in 1990.

"Her responsibility was to come up with a sure-fire assay that would be user-friendly and for commercial sale. And she did," Firca said.

"That was a time when, because we were a small company that had been bought by Baxter International, we were in competition with some of the largest diagnostic companies. We surpassed most of them by developing the tests," he noted.

"Evelyn's test for HTLV was one of the tests that stood out."

Opening Doors for Others

Linda Smith, from Atlanta, Georgia, met Nicol when Smith was studying molecular biology at what was then Chicago Medical School and applied for a part-time job with Pandex in 1988.

Smith, an African American, told Medscape Medical News she happened to interview on a day when Nicol was on vacation. Her interviewing panel of six scientists was all male and almost exclusively white, and they concluded Smith didn't have enough experience.

Two weeks later she got a call from Nicol saying she would like to interview her personally.

"She told me, 'I found your resume in the trash can,'" Smith said. She told Smith that she thought she was unfairly rejected because she had done her undergraduate work at Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee.

"I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard," Smith said.

Nicol took the matter up with management, arguing that Smith was the most qualified applicant, and she was hired.

Nicol and Smith, who were among the very few women or African Americans at the company, worked on HIV. Nicol had developed a more sensitive assay to detect antibodies for HIV, Smith said.

"At that time HIV was the disease everyone was concerned about, but not much was known about it," she said.

Smith described her as "a very petite lady, but she had this presence when you walked in the room," she said. She described her as a "brilliant scientist, no-nonsense, and very direct."

"There were some days I thought I was in the Army," Smith said.

No Such Thing as "Free Time"

There was no such thing as "free time," Smith said. If Smith finished her work early, Nicol would instruct her to visit the other departments in the company so she could get to know how all the departments worked together.

One thing Nicol taught her was when you present to a crowd, you should know more than anyone you are addressing.

"That taught me to never present unless I was well-prepared," she said.

Smith wasn't the first or last person Nicol opened doors for.

She said at Pandex, her department was almost all women, which was not the case in the rest of the company.

"The world has lost a brilliant person who was ethical, professional, and didn't show favoritism," she said.

 

Helping younger people started in Nicol's own family when she was a child in Little Rock, Kentucky, with younger siblings.

Nicol was the eighth of 11 children born to Daniel Eugene Carmon, a schoolteacher, and Margarite Wilson Carmon, a homemaker. She married Christian Nicol, an electrical engineer from Sierra Leone, in 1962, and they divorced in 1984.

Nicol was a fierce believer in education and self-education and had to fight for her children to have the same educational options as their white peers.

But she never measured success by how she or they compared with other people, her son said.

Her question was always, "How did you do versus how could you have done."

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and Nurse.com and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick

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