Pawnee City’s Gladys Henry Dick intended to study medicine at the University of Nebraska after completing her bachelor’s degree in zoology there in 1900. Initially, she respected her mother’s objections to a woman attending medical school, and instead took graduate classes at the university for three years, before finally heading east to pursue her dream. She earned her M.D. at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1907.
She then studied in Berlin and became interested in biomedical research. After moving to Chicago, she contracted scarlet fever and began studying the disease’s effect on the kidneys.
In 1914, she married a co-researcher from the University of Chicago, George Dick. Gladys and George discovered in 1923 that scarlet fever was caused by streptococcus bacteria, and together developed a skin test to determine a patient’s susceptibility to the disease. They were nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1925 for creating a vaccine to treat and prevent scarlet fever.
Gladys Henry Dick’s work on the scarlet fever vaccine is just one story in the University of Nebraska’s rich history in virology research. The arrival of molecular virology expert Charles Wood in 1996 spurred an explosive growth in that field, and under Dr. Wood’s leadership, the Nebraska Center for Virology was started. This partnership, between UNL, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University, focuses on viral diseases of humans, including HIV and Kaposi’s sarcoma, as well as viruses within plants and animals.
In 2018, UNL researchers were the first to identify a vaccine that could defend against the Zika virus without producing antibodies. Many studies show that Zika virus antibodies can worsen a dengue virus infection, which, like Zika, is mosquito-borne. This phenomenon is referred to as antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE) of disease, and has been an obstacle to the development of effective and safe dengue virus vaccines.
Virologist Eric Weaver and his team, including doctoral students Brianna Bullard and Brigette Corder, have been studying potential Zika vaccines since 2016, shortly after an outbreak of the virus in Brazil that the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency. Weaver’s team is confident that future experiments will yield significant findings that could have a profound impact on the field of vaccinology.