Photo: Ruth Bishop (front row, center) with the rotavirus discovery team.

When discussing women pioneers in science, several names in particular seem to always make their way into the conversation: Marie Curie, Nettie Stevens, Rosalind Franklin. However, few have heard of a talented microbiologist and immunologist whose work has helped to save the lives of millions of children and pave the way for future generations of women scientists: Ruth Bishop.

In 1973, Bishop led the team of researchers at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne that discovered rotavirus, the leading cause of severe diarrhea in infants and small children around the world. This discovery – which the ever-humble Bishop attributes to a “mixture of calculated research and serendipity” – has had an enormous impact on child health. The identification of an infectious cause of severe diarrhea, kick-started a decades-long hunt for a vaccine that would ultimately avert an estimated 135,000 child deaths per year.

Though Bishop had suspected an infectious agent was responsible for much of the childhood diarrhea cases that came into their hospital, confirming this hypothesis proved to be easier said than done. Despite several attempts, no one had been able to isolate a disease-causing organism from these patients and grow it in culture. Thus, Bishop teamed up with pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Geoffrey Davidson, virologist Ian Homes, PhD and electronmicroscopist Brian Ruck to look at the problem from a new angle.

Using scanning electron microscopy – an extremely powerful technique able to visualize objects as small as one nanometer long – the team identified wheel-shaped viruses in samples collected from pediatric severe diarrhea patients. The new virus, dubbed “rotavirus” (rota is Latin for “wheel”), was unlike other viruses previously reported to induce diarrheal disease in adults, but very closely resembled viruses known to cause diarrhea in calves and newborn mice. When this virus was found in over half of the patients sampled, Bishop’s suspicion that this virus was the infectious agent they were looking for was confirmed.

In the years following Bishop and her colleagues’ discovery, it was found that severe diarrhea caused by rotavirus infection killed as many as 870,000 children every year, more than 90% of which were in the developing world. In an article published in the Lancet twenty years later, Bishop recalled that once they found the virus in patients in Melbourne, it began appearing everywhere. "It was like pressing a whole lot of light bulbs on a world map," she remembered. "Everyone was saying, 'we have found the virus too.'”

Bishop was also the first to make a discovery that showed development of an immune response – and therefore, a vaccine – against rotavirus disease was possible. In a 1983 paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine, she described the development of an immune response following an initial rotavirus infection that protects patients against severe disease during subsequent infections. Though this immune response won’t stop a child from becoming re-infected with rotavirus, it would prevent the virus from causing the life-threatening symptoms that make rotavirus such a threat.

Ruth Bishop is a largely unsung hero of global health outside of the rotavirus field, receiving little public recognition for her work. Though she often deflects credit to colleagues and collaborators, few in the rotavirus field would argue Bishop’s invaluable contribution to the understanding of this disease. She has been the driving force behind a body of work as remarkable as her humility regarding her role in generating it. Bishop also spearheaded the development of a more sensitive and reproducible diagnostic test to detect rotavirus infection, is an author on 169 rotavirus publications and was involved in the development of an oral rotavirus vaccine candidate currently in clinical trials.

At this year’s 12th International Rotavirus Symposium, Bishop’s friends and colleagues honored her role as a pioneer who paved the way for other women in science with a roundtable discussion titled, “Women Leaders in the Scientific Advancement of Rotavirus – a Tribute to Ruth Bishop.” The panel included women from all over the world whose careers would have been very different if not for Bishop. “In retrospect, my entire career wouldn’t be there if Dr. Bishop had not discovered rotavirus,” said Dr. Tokoyo Nakagomi of Nagasaki University.

Panelists praised her not only as a successful scientist, but also as a role model for all those around her. Session moderator Dr. Roger Glass of the U.S. National Institutes of Health congratulated Bishop not only for her illustrious career, but also for her success “as a role model for women in science, addressing many of the unique problems of women that, fortunately, many of the young women in science experience less often now thanks to [her] pioneering efforts.”

Dr. Julie Bines, who serves as the leader of the Rotavirus Group at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI), has worked closely with Bishop for much of her career. Recalling her early days in medicine, Bines highlighted the importance of Bishop’s influence on her training. “My pathway into pediatric gastroenterology was really shaped by the experience I had as a young doctor here at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne,” she said, “being taught by wonderful clinicians and being shown the pursuit of science and global engagement by Ruth. I feel very privileged to be living the legacy that’s been provided by Ruth and Graeme [Barnes].”

40 years ago, it was very difficult for women to make it in the field of research. Thanks to the efforts pioneers like Ruth Bishop, women now play an instrumental role in defining and furthering the research agenda of many fields. For all she has done to further child health and the status of female researchers, Ruth Bishop has earned her place in the pantheon of great women scientists.