Rochester Medicine

Her Rightful Place: Barbara Iglewski Inducted to the National Women's Hall of Fame

May. 10, 2016

Barbara IglewskiAs an undergraduate Biology major at Allegheny College in the 1950s, professor emerita Barbara Iglewski, PhD, was one of only two women in her organic chemistry class.

“We were told flat-out the first day, and almost every day, that we had no business being there,” she recalls.

Hopefully that professor saved her autograph. Staying in that class—and acing it—is just one of a long line of “firsts” that have defined Iglewski’s world-renowned career.

Born in 1938, Iglewski earned her doctorate from Penn State, and then spent 40 years—most at the University of Rochester—studying how a common kind of infectious bacteria spreads and how to stop it.

Her laboratory was the first to discover that pseudomonas actually “talk” to one another, using a chemical language to coordinate attacks on human cells and initiate disease. Her work launched an entire field of study into how bacteria communicate, and spurred the development of drugs to thwart the communication process.

In 1986, she became the School of Medicine and Dentistry’s first female department chair when she was tapped to lead the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. As chair, she doubled the department’s tenure-track faculty members to 21, and grew its NIH funding from $1 million to $12.3 million. From 1987 to 1988, she presided over the American Society for Microbiology, and chaired its publications board in the 1990s, at a time when very few women served on editorial boards. A highly cited scientist by the Institute of Scientific Information, she has authored or co-authored more than 150 articles, and holds seven patents. Later, she became the first female to serve as UR vice provost for research and graduate education.

But Iglewski was honored by the Hall of Fame for breakthroughs well beyond her work as a scientist and administrator. In a male-dominated field, she made it her life’s purpose to mentor, advocate, and open doors for women who shared her curiosity for the sciences.

“I have a passion for doing what I could to help other women,” says Iglewski, who helped women advance to faculty positions, connected them with editorial opportunities and resolved salary discrepancies.

She recalls that when she was offered her first teaching position, the department chair “thought I would have children and quit,” but over the years, things began to change.

She often looked to icons like Susan B. Anthony for inspiration.

“The suffragettes were amazing women, when you look at what they did not have and what they fought for,” she says. “They couldn’t keep their wages. They didn’t have the right to vote. If a man divorced them, they had no right to their children or the property. They had none of the rights that we take for granted.”

On Oct. 3, Iglewski took her place among these and other women who led the way in many fields they were once told they did not belong: the arts, athletics, business, government.

“It’s not only an honor but it’s a very humbling experience,” says Iglewski. “I really believe, man or woman, that as you achieve and move forward, you have to reach back and help. And, if you don’t, shame on you.”

It was a chance meeting between women’s rights activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady-Stanton (introduced by dress reformer Amelia Bloomer in 1851) that ultimately led to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. Professor emerita Barbara Iglewski, PhD, now stands alongside these suffragettes as a 2015 inductee in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. “We stand on the shoulders of all the courageous women who came before us,” Iglewski says, in the foreground of their statues in Seneca Falls, N.Y. “They helped us in all of our careers.”