On May 27, 2020, I discovered the most inspiring woman in science I’ve ever known, who tragically passed away of complications from COVID-19 that same day. Evelyn Carmon Nicol was a pioneering immunologist who started her work at a time when Black women were discouraged not only from STEM (science, tech, engineering and mat) careers, but from higher education more broadly. From the first moment I learned about her and her amazing work, I knew that we needed to write and illustrate her story here at Lifeology.
A photo of Evelyn, compliments of Karen Nicol
I came to know Evelyn through the stories told about her by her daughter Karen Nicol and her former sister in law Delores Carmon, during interviews with myself and illustrator Anna Doherty. Anna and I both fell in love with Evelyn, her spunk, her strength, her persistence and her inspiring scientific work during these interviews. We learned that even from a young age, Evelyn had an innate sense for the microorganisms living around her and how to protect herself from them. Once when she was young and working as a maid, she got sticks out of the yard to use to do the laundry, so that she wouldn’t have to touch the dirty clothes with her hands. When the woman who owned the home came in and saw her, she exclaimed, “You can’t wash clothes like that!” Evelyn just said, “Watch me.” Brilliant and defiant.
“[Talking to her lab group] Everything is going to be washed down with at least 20% Clorox every day after you finish [in the lab] and before you start.” – Evelyn
We’ve done our best to tell Evelyn’s story in the form of an illustrated Lifeology card deck while letting Evelyn’s voice lead us. We hope her story will inspire you as much as it did us, and push you to pursue your dreams and your passions no matter the circumstance.
From the Illustrator, Anna Doherty
It was such a great honor and privilege to be able to illustrate Evelyn Carmon Nicol’s story. From the moment Paige first brought the idea to the table, I was on board. From the small amount we first knew about her from her obituary, she already sounded like an amazing woman. But when we got in touch with her daughter Karen and her sister in law Delores, Evelyn truly captured my imagination. Her story is inspiring, not just through her ground-breaking science work but also through her determined and ever-positive personality.
“If I picked up a spoon [in the lab], I recorded it; if I picked up a pipet, I recorded it. I recorded everything because that’s the only way you’ll ever repeat anything. Most people go into the lab, they don’t have a book they are writing in, they just do [their lab work] and repeat by memory and if it doesn’t work, they can’t figure it out.” – Evelyn, who was famous for the reproducibility of her experiments and results
“[Talking her lab group] I’ve made many mistakes in my time, I expect you to make mistakes. I expect you to tell me what those mistakes are so we can correct them.” – Evelyn
What struck me most when talking to Karen and Delores about Evelyn was that they were always laughing. They had endless fun, loving, warm memories about Evelyn, her life and her attitude. It was so clear how much joy she inspired in them. It seemed even when the going was tough for Evelyn, Karen and Delores had an anecdote about how Evelyn put a positive spin on things – from laughing about thinking “logs” in a math test were wood, to hiring Linda Smith into her lab in the face of racial discrimination, after she found her CV in the trash.
The hardest part of the whole project was definitely editing down what stories to share about Evelyn. My notes alone were 9 pages long! Alex Gilmore, who helped to author the course, did an amazing job helping to distill everything down to what we have written in the course. We have only scratched the surface of Evelyn’s life here, but I am so glad we got to share her story.
“I learnt about viruses from her – she was always talking about procedures in lab, the importance of cleanliness and how she handled samples of viruses in the lab safely. Now it comes full circle with the COVID-19 pandemic. She was very strict in her lab about safety. It was table talk. We talked about viruses. My kids remember her talking about viruses. ‘Don’t buy anything unless you get it dry cleaned – because viruses can live on surfaces!'” – Karen Nicol
With my background in non-fiction books about women for children, I am often drawing pictures of people whom I have just read second-hand accounts, articles or books about. But Delores gave us a transcript of a conversation she had with Evelyn – we had her life story in her own words! Reading the transcript was magical, it really felt like Evelyn was talking to us. We could get such a sense of her upbeat, positive, caring, full-of-energy personality through her own words, and that made illustrating her a dream because I felt like I knew who she was a little more. And it was fantastic to be able to use this transcript to have quotes from Evelyn herself in the final illustrations.
“Seal would cook these biscuits. We were always hungry of course. We would slip in her house and eat up her biscuits, then close the window like nothing happened and leave. We would do a lot of silly stuff.” – Evelyn
Karen and Delores were also generous enough to share photos and documents with us. It was amazing to be able to incorporate these into the illustrations, so the final project is a collage of photos, drawings, handwritten text, papers and gifs. I think having actual photographs and certificates brings the story to life for the reader, which is a great thing. I went about deciding what to illustrate by putting the photos we had in time order, working out which cards would have a quote from Evelyn, and filling in the gaps with illustrations. I especially enjoyed images where there was a combination of different elements, I think it gives a scrapbook kind of feel to the final card deck which seems fitting for telling the story of someone’s life.
“The only way that I will be in charge of this [lab] group is if you let me run it my way and there’s no interference from anyone.” – Evelyn
Finally – to Karen and Delores – I hope Evelyn would have enjoyed my illustrations as I did them all on Photoshop, of which I know she was a huge fan!