Celebrating Darwin Day 2020
February 12, 2020
Each Darwin Day, BSCS Science Learning celebrates the profound impact of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Last year, we began using this occasion to highlight scientists whose own significant contributions have been overlooked or disregarded throughout history. We are excited to share Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum’s story today.
Imagine discovering one of the world’s deadliest diseases and receiving no credit because you’re an African without access to high-tech research facilities. Imagine having to watch people across your continent die in droves because the international medical community disregards the treatment you’ve developed. That is Dr. Muyembe-Tamfum’s reality.
In 1976, Dr. Muyembe-Tamfum was working as a field epidemiologist in his home country—now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was called to a hospital to investigate the outbreak of a mysterious disease. While examining patients’ blood samples, he realized this disease was unlike anything he’d seen before. But to investigate further, he needed technology that wasn’t available in Congo. So he sent blood samples to Belgium, where European and US scientists identified a new virus in his samples. They named it Ebola and received all the credit.
Still, Dr. Muyembe-Tamfum remained committed to the health of his people. During an Ebola outbreak in 1995, he wondered: Could antibodies from Ebola survivors be used to treat new cases? He tried the approach and saved seven out of eight patients. But the medical establishment ignored his findings “because he didn’t have a control group”, and massive Ebola outbreaks continued. In the end, his approach has served as the foundation for the first successful treatment for Ebola virus.
Dr. Muyembe-Tamfum is now a national hero in Congo and has overseen the creation of state-of-the-art research facilities investigating Ebola. But only recently has he received recognition and awards from the international scientific community for discovering Ebola and pioneering the first effective treatment. Only recently has his story been told outside of his home country.
And so this Darwin Day, we choose to shine the spotlight on Dr. Muyembe-Tamfum. We do so as part of our pursuit of a more equitable, inclusive, and just future for science teaching and learning. At BSCS, this includes celebrating the voice of every great scientist and every science student, regardless of social identity.
Daniel C. Edelson
BSCS Executive Director