Pioneering Microbiologist Dedicated to Wildlife Protection

Dr. Jessie Price arrived in Madison in 1977 as an esteemed scientist poised to spend the second leg of her career as a research microbiologist in the National Wildlife Health Center of the National Biological Service. Her pioneering work at the Duck Disease Research Laboratory at Cornell University made her an excellent addition to National Wildlife Health Center.

Born in 1930 in Montrose, Pennsylvania, Price excelled in school despite being the only Black student in her classes. Her mother, Teresa Price, was a single parent who dedicated herself to encouraging her daughter to pursue higher education and to making that pursuit possible. They were best friends until parted by her mother’s death. After high school in Montrose where she was valedictorian, Price was accepted to Cornell University, an Ivy League university in Ithaca, New York. Concerned about her ability to be successful at such a prestigious school, Price and her mother moved to Ithaca together. She attended high school for an additional year to take the advanced courses that would make her feel prepared for the next stage of her education. Price dreamed of becoming a physician but a friendship with a microbiologist that she met in her first semester at Cornell drew her attention to veterinary microbiology. She enrolled in the College of Agriculture and earned the Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology in 1953. 

Price’s educational achievements were not hers alone. Her mother was a staunch supporter and various friends, teachers, and mentors advised and cheered her along the way. One of those mentors, Dr. Dorsey Bruner, encouraged Price to enroll in graduate school, a path that she was not considering because she was tired of school and did not know where the finances would come from. After graduating, Price worked as a laboratory technician at the Poultry Disease Research Farm of the New York State Veterinary College at Cornell University. In her three years working there, Bruner continued to urge her toward graduate study. She eventually agreed to pursue a master’s degree but Bruner’s persistence and research assistantships for graduate study pushed her through her Ph.D. Price earned the Master of Science degree in veterinary bacteriology, pathology, and parasitology in 1958 and the Doctor of Philosophy degree in the same fields of study in 1959; Bruner advised Price for both graduate degrees.

By the time Price finished her graduate studies, she was already making a name for herself in the study of avian diseases. She was particularly interested in waterfowl including commercial ducks. She worked in the Cornell University Duck Research Laboratory from 1959 until 1977. Her research focused on identifying bacterial diseases in commercial ducklings and developing vaccines to control those diseases. Her work supported the edible waterfowl industry in Long Island, New York.  A happy accident in the laboratory led her to isolate an organism that causes respiratory disease in ducklings called Pasteurella anatipestifer. During her time at the Duck Research Laboratory, Price developed three vaccines for Pasteurella anatipestifer, Pasteurella multocida, and Salmonella typhimurium. These vaccines were used by suck, turkey, and pigeon farmers in New York, across the Midwest, and in Canada. Her research was featured in the September 1964 issue of Ebony magazine.

Price’s transition to Madison was based on another happy accident. While pursuing a position that the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Price met Dr. Milton Friend, the founder of the National Wildlife Health Center, who offered her a position as a research microbiologist. She and her mother settled on Madison’s west side shortly thereafter. At the National Wildlife Health Center, she expanded her research to focus on how environmental contaminants and diseases interact among wildlife to reduce mortality rates due to microbial infections. Her research took her around the country and around the world studying diseases such as avian cholera and avian tuberculosis. Her work brought her great joy. As her friend Yvonne Bowen remembers, “Science was her life.” 

During her career, Price also taught both formally and informally. She was a lecturer in earth sciences at Long Island University from 1963 until 1976. She supported young microbiologists through mentoring and advocacy as a member of several professional organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Women in Science, and the Committee on the Status of Minority Microbiologists. She served as chair of the Committee of the Status of Women Microbiologists from 1978 to 1979. She served as national president (1974-1975), national second vice-president (1972-1973), and member of the national board of directors (1976-1980) of Sigma Delta Epsilon, an honorary society for graduate women in science.

Price’s love for animals extended to her personal life. She raised Pembroke Welsh Corgis. Her first Corgi, Carla, earned several ribbons at dog shows including a blue ribbon at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden where Carla was crowned “Best American-Bred Female Corgi.” Price also enjoyed photography and would proudly display her work featuring animals and nature.  

Dr. Jessie Price died in 2015 in Madison at the age of 85 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She is remembered among scientists as a trailblazing Black woman scientist who set an example of excellence in scholarship for those who would follow her.