Elizabeth Stern, Public Health: Los Angeles
Elizabeth Stern was a dynamic, dedicated researcher, teacher, wife, mother, and a warm friend and colleague. Her colleagues in the research community will miss her perceptive insights and carefully considered points of view.
Born in Cobalt, Canada, September 19, 1915, she completed her medical training at the University of Toronto and graduate studies at the Pennsylvania Medical School and the Cedars of Lebanon and Good Samaritan Hospitals in Los Angeles. She was certified by the American Board of Pathology. In 1968, she received the UCLA Women of Science Award in recognition of her work in the relation of hormones to changes in cervical cytology. She began her career in cancer research at the Cancer Detection Clinic of Los Angeles. It was there that she became curious about the process and mechanisms that produce cervical cancer. She pursued this interest during an appointment as a research coordinator at the University of Southern California Medical School in 1961 and as a lecturer in the Department of Pathology at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1961. In 1963, she joined the faculty of the Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, UCLA.
Her research focused on the relationship between cervical cancer and hormones, enlarging and clarifying our understanding of the cellular changes in the epithelial lining of the cervix which may progress to cancer. She and her biostatistical associates developed a cytologic scale which ranked the progressive changes in cervical cytology into one hundred fine points on a gradient. This scale became the basis of several outstanding contributions to our understanding of the biology of cervical cancer. In her last years, she and her colleagues at UCLA and at the California Institute of Technology were developing an automated instrument, using digital imaging, to assist in cytologic screening of cervical scrapings.
Dr. Stern's work suggested to her that oral contraceptive pills, which interfere with normal hormonal rhythms, might increase the risk of cervical cancer in users. In order to investigate this possible relationship, Dr. Stern began studies of a cohort of women in Los Angeles who attended the Los
― 248 ―Angeles County Health Department's family planning clinics. She followed this cohort for more than ten years, carefully documenting changes in environmental exposures, reproductive patterns, viral exposures, contraceptive use, and cervical cytology scores. On the basis of this study Dr. Stern was the first to report in Science in 1977 that continued use of steroid contraceptives increased the risk of cervical dyplasia and, by inference, the risk of cervical cancer in women.
Professor Stern carefully organized her records to facilitate further research by other investigators, knowing that she would not be given the opportunity to pursue this research herself. Before her death, she completed a library of cytologic slides that show two hundred and fifty distinct degrees of cell progressions, from normal through cervical cancer.
Her colleagues knew Elizabeth as a dedicated scientist and teacher, committed to her research and her students. Her tenacity in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles was a source of admiration to her fellow faculty and a suitable template for her students. A final example of this commitment was her decision to continue teaching and research despite the fact that she was undergoing chemotherapy.
Dr. Stern was a private person who managed to separate her professional and personal lives. It was a source of regret to many of us that we only realized after her death the equal commitment that she had given to her children and her husband.
While we shall remember Elizabeth for her professional contributions, we will particularly remember her as a humane scientist, willing to consider other points of view and alternatives without discarding her own lightly. She was slow to judge her fellow man but quick to recognize outstanding qualities in all individuals regardless of their place in society. We, her colleagues, mourn the loss of Elizabeth Stern, but are grateful that we have had the opportunity to know her. Our interaction with her has expanded our horizons and provided for us an example of an outstanding, dedicated researcher and teacher.
V. Clark J. Schacher R. Detels