Ida Henrietta Hyde Invented the Microelectrode.
Powerful Device Enabled Research on a Cellular Level. The first woman to graduate from Heidelberg University in Germany, Hyde used her microelectrode for research without knowing the far-reaching effects of its applications.
The Heidenheimer family immigrated from Germany before Ida was born, changing their surname to Hyde for easier assimilation into American culture. Patriarch and merchant Meyer H. Hyde, often traveled for his business. He disappeared on one of those travels.
Ida was born September 8, 1857 in Davenport, Iowa. With the disappearance of Meyer, matriarch Babette moved the family to Chicago where Babette started a business. Chicago’s Great Fire in 1871 destroyed both the Hyde home and business.
Supporting the Family
Being the oldest of her siblings, Hyde felt the largest burden of responsibility in providing for her family so she became a milliner’s apprentice. She even paid for her only brother’s education at the University of Illinois. She was eventually able to go from milliner’s apprentice to saleslady at the store where she worked.
It was at this store that Hyde picked up a discarded book about biology: and English version of Alexander von Humboldt’s Ansichten der Nature (View of Nature). This not only awakened Hyde’s love of biology, it also motivated her to continue her own education. Hyde attended night classes at the Chicago Athenaeum. She was further encouraged to pursue her education while visiting her brother at college and meeting women working on academic works. During the 1870s, women attending college was something of an anomaly. Not long afterward, Hyde began attending the University of Illinois.
When Hyde’s brother became ill and she quit school to care for him. She taught second and third grades during that time to support herself. It wasn’t until 1888, at the age of 31, that Hyde enrolled in Cornell University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1891.
Studying at Bryn Mawr
Hyde was then offered a biology scholarship to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. While there, Hyde began working as a researcher at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. Her work at Woods Hole came to the attention of a professor at Strasbourg University in France. The professor offered to accept Hyde’s work at the laboratory as a doctoral dissertation.
Hyde actually attended Strasbourg University for a short period of time until she discovered that the examining board would refuse to allow her to take the examination required to earn her degree.
Friends encouraged Hyde to attend Heidelberg University in Germany. But before packing up and moving, Hyde sent her documentation to the university, requesting information regarding the university’s stance on the examination for women.
Establishing Policy at Heidelberg University
The faculty of Heidelberg called a special meeting to discuss Hyde’s proposition. It was the first time in the university’s history the question of women’s attendance had been raised. Now that it was, it required action.
After much deliberation, the faculty set a precedent for Heidelberg University with the following two motions:
- Women are admitted to the examination for the degree, under the same conditions outlined in the official regulations for men candidates, with the provision that women are required to study in the University of Heidelberg in preparation for the examination;
- A faculty rule does not exist against admitting women candidates to the examination for the doctor’s degree.
Hyde still met with prejudice at Heidelberg in the form of Professor Kuhne, from the Physiology Department. Although Kuhne refused to lecture Hyde herself, he allowed his assistants to take notes for her. After her examination, for which Hyde had performed at the Summa Cum Laude level, Kuhne congratulated her on her passing but gave her the term “Multa Cum Laude Superavit” which meant “praiseworthily excellent in many things” and she was granted the degree Doctor of Philosophy and the Natural Sciences.  On February 12, 1896, Hyde received her degree and became the first woman to graduate from Heidelberg University.
Upon graduation, Hyde became the first woman researcher at Harvard Medical School. She also published a paper which appeared in the first edition of the American Journal of Physiology and became the first woman member of the American Physiological Society.
Inventing the Microelectrode
During her tenure at Harvard, Hyde researched the breathing mechanism of the horseshoe crab and the grasshopper, as well as the skate (distant relative of sharks and rays), amphibians and mammals. It was during this research that Hyde invented the microelectrode which revolutionized neurophysiology.
An electrode is a device which conducts electricity. A microelectrode is a much smaller form of electrode. This device can be inserted into the wall of a single cell without causing damage. By measuring the amount of electricity which passes through the electrode, data can then be collected about a specimen. For instance, the electrical impulses present during the resting and active states of cells, measurements of pH and dissolved substances in a specimen can deliver vital research data.
Research into the unlimited potential of microelectrodes continues to be conducted today. Microelectrodes can read brain signals and have been found to help people with paralysis to use computers and may even enable amputees to control bionic limbs. Microelectrodes which sit on top of the human brain, rather than being inserted into the brain, can accurately detect brain signals which control arm movements.
With Hyde’s invention of the microelectrode, research could now be conducted on a cellular level.
After her invention, Hyde continued researching but also joined the staff of Kansas University. Hyde founded the university’s Department of Physiology and served as both Professor and Department Chair until her retirement in 1920. She continued researching at Woods Hole during the summers and wrote a memoir of her experiences as a woman physiologist in “Before Women Were Human Beings.”
Hyde established the Ida H. Hyde Scholarship which is awarded annually to women in science at Kansas University.
Hyde died August 22, 1945 at the age of 91.