STEAMM August 24th, 2020

Evelyn Nicol, A Legendary Woman in STEAMM

Evelyn Carmon Nicol

Evelyn was a pioneering microbiologist and immunologist. She recently died of COVID-19.
This course recounts stories of her life, and includes quotes from Evelyn herself.

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Evelyn was born in Little Rock, Kentucky, in the south of the USA. She was the 8th out of 11 children in her family.

Growing up, her family didn’t have much. They mostly ate lard sandwiches and bean soup. But when Evelyn thought of her childhood, she remembered all the happy times.

Evelyn’s absolute favorite food was black walnuts. Sometimes she and her siblings would sneak into a nearby farm with big potato sacks and stuff them full of walnuts!

Evelyn’s local school was not very good – it had only one room, and didn’t go past eighth grade level. So her father taught the children extra lessons himself at home.

After finishing high school, Evelyn was offered a scholarship to Tuskegee University to study Home Economics. She went to Tuskegee, but she was not interested in sewing or cooking.

Before she finished her first sewing class, Evelyn took a leap and decided she would study math and chemistry instead, despite having no experience with these subjects!

On her first day of her first math class, the Professor set a test. Evelyn stared at it confused. There were so many questions about logs. Her score came back as 0%.

But Evelyn wasn’t giving up. She persuaded her Professor to give her another chance. She studied night and day, barely eating, determined. She scored 100%!

While Evelyn took classes and worked two jobs, she noticed locals in Tuskegee were unwelcoming. They didn’t like the university encouraging the education of Black students.

But Evelyn persevered. After graduating, Evelyn’s first job was as a research assistant. She was helping a man named Jonas Salk test the first vaccine for polio disease.

Evelyn’s job was to study cells in the lab that had poliovirus inside of them. This virus causes polio, which can cause muscle weakness or paralysis in some people.

One day, Evelyn was holding a test tube full of the deadly virus when it leaked all over her lap!

She ran to wash, change, and test her blood for virus antibodies. Luckily, she didn’t get sick! After that, she was always vigilant about safety in the lab for herself and coworkers.

Later, Evelyn’s team were trying, and failing, to isolate herpes zoster (the virus that causes chickenpox). When her boss was on holiday, she tried it her own way… and it worked!

Evelyn had even more success in her next job. She developed a test to screen pregnant women for a parasite infection called toxoplasmosis. This test is still used in Europe today!

In 1962, Evelyn joined the health care company Abbott Laboratories as a research assistant.

Evelyn had a tough time at Abbott. As a Black woman, she was outnumbered by white, male co-workers who tried to sabotage her results or take credit for her work.

She had to take her lab books home each night to prevent her colleagues from stealing her ideas.

Once, Evelyn found a magnet by her computer. Someone was trying to wipe her files! She was forced to cover the windows of her lab with newspaper to stop being hassled.

Despite constant racism and sexism, Evelyn remained determined. She pushed back and fought for her right to be there, even when it was exhausting.

In 1976, she became one of the few African American women to be awarded a molecular biology patent for her work developing a technique to dissolve blood clots.

A different healthcare company, Pandex, recruited Evelyn in 1985. She jumped at the chance to lead. Pandex gave her a senior role, a team, and – finally – respect.

Evelyn led the Retrovirology Division, a division dedicated to making commercial kits to test for viruses like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS.

A team of white scientists interviewed applicants who wished to join Evelyn’s team. One day, Evelyn found the resume of a woman named Linda Smith in the trash.

Evelyn believed Linda was most qualified for the job, but had been unfairly rejected because she studied at a historically Black university. Evelyn called and hired her on the spot!

Evelyn led her group in a unique way. She let them take holidays, come in late and work however they pleased, so long as they met their deadlines quickly and safely.

In a twist of fate, Evelyn’s work caught the eye of her old company, Abbott. They bought Pandex. Refusing to return to a company that treated her poorly, Evelyn retired.

Retirement gave Evelyn time to focus on her hobbies – and she had many! Oil painting, gardening, horse-riding, wine-making, tennis, bridge, Photoshop and more.

Retiring also gave her more time to spend with her family. Unusual for her day, Evelyn was a working woman who had three children and continued to work.

Sadly, at the age of 89, Evelyn suffered a stroke. While hospitalized, she was diagnosed with COVID-19. She passed away soon after.

Evelyn leaves behind her beloved family (3 children and 4 grandchildren!)  and a legacy of exceptional work. She remained hardworking and dignified in the face of relentless discrimination.


Thank you to Evelyn’s daughter Karen Nicol and her sister-in-law Delores Carmon for the stories that went into creating this course.

Continue to learn more about them.

Karen Nicol
An award winning Creative Director. She’s received 2 Sports Emmy Awards for her work with the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics! She is a pianist and a violinist. She has two daughters, Kayla and Keturah!

Delores Carmon
Evelyn’s sister-in-law who worked with Evelyn at Abbott as a Lab quality control technician. Today she’s a homemaker with three adult children. She loves to cook, paint, sew, garden and act as the genealogist of her family!

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