Mattiedna Johnson-Cleveland’s ‘Hidden Figure’ in penicillin research


In 2001, at the 21st District Black Congressional Caucus Labor Day Picnic, Mattiedna Johnson, at age 82, distributed flyers that stated in bold letters, Penicillin and Scarlet Fever were Developed with the Help of Mattiedna Johnson, R.N. The flyer described her pertinent role in the cure for the fatal scarlet fever epidemic and other diseases that World War II soldiers contracted during the 1940’s. Johnson stated she was the only Black, the only nurse and laboratory technician that worked on the U.S. Army Medical Corp penicillin project at the University of Minnesota. She described each step in the process and how the mold she identified led to the ‘miracle cure of the century’.

“My passion in finding a cure for scarlet fever resulted from a baby, in my care, who died from this disease, in my arms. His body violently shook from the pain of the disease…his last breath and the merciful silence of his death. I pledged that not another baby would die in their mother’s arms due to scarlet fever,” said Johnson.

April 7th, 1918, Johnson was born, weighed three and a half pounds, on a Mississippi sharecropper’s farm to a mother who had a distaste for girls and a father who adored her and nicknamed her Tots. Seventy years later, 1988, Johnson self-published a biography, Tots Goes to Gbarnga, pronounced Bonga, that depicts the harsh realities of her medical missionary project in West Africa, her life’s obstacles as a nurse, triumphs and love. Johnson married a ‘preacher man’, who was physically and emotionally abusive and she divorced after 36 years of turmoil. The couple extensively traveled the United States on missions to save troubled churches which landed them in Cleveland, 1959. She wrote about the painful racial prejudices she dealt with in her nursing career in Cleveland.

“This racism was worse than in any part of the South. Tots had to do her private duty nursing through a black registry. Because she (Mattiedna) believed in integration, racism was the cause she chose to fight,” a book excerpt.

“Madam Chairman, I am a nurse in Cleveland. I am a paid member of the American Nurses Association,, the State Nurses Association and pay dues to the Greater Cleveland Council of Nurses however I am denied registration on the Private Duty Registry…because I am a Negro. I believe they call that taxation without representation,” declared Johnson at a 1961 Ohio Nurses Association convention.

As a result, Johnson co-founded the National Black Nurses Association, Inc, in 1971, with 11 members that now boosts 150,000 members in 35 states and she organized the Cleveland Council of Black Nurses. The late Congressman Louis Stokes honored Johnson in the U.S. Congressional Record on October 23, 1990. Johnson said she never received any recognition for her work on the penicillin project.

Former Pfizer Pharmaceutical Communication Manager John Seng said they don’t dispute Mattiedna’s involvement in the Penicillin Project, according to Johnson. Pfizer developed and sold the medicine named Terramycin, the first pharmaceutical bottle to carry the Pfizer name, the cure for scarlet fever and 100 other infectious organisms, sales rose to $45 million and accounted for 42% of the company’s revenues, in early 1950’s. Johnson said she was not monetarily compensated but thousands of babies were saved from dying in their mothers arms.

Johnson died December, 2003 at the age of 85.

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