Elizabeth Stern

(b. Sept. 19, 1915, Cobalt, Ont., Can.-d. Aug. 18, 1980, Los Angeles, Calif., U.S.)

The Canadian-born American pathologist Elizabeth Stern is noted for her work on the stages of a cell’s progression from a normal to a cancerous state.

Stern received a medical degree from the University of Toronto in 1939 and the following year went to the United States, where she became a naturalized citizen in 1943. She received further medical training at the Pennsylvania Medical School and at the Good Samaritan and Cedars of Lebanon hospitals in Los Angeles. She was one of the first specialists in cytopathology, the study of diseased cells. From 1963 she was professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.

While at UCLA, Stern became interested in cervical cancer, and she began to focus her research solely on its causes and progression. The discoveries she made during this period led her to publish in 1963 what is believed to be the first case report linking a specific virus (herpes simplex virus) to a specific cancer (cervical cancer). For another phase of her research she studied a group of more than 10,000 Los Angeles county women who were clients of the county’s public family planning clinics.

In a 1973 article in the journal Science, Stern became the first person to report a definite link between the prolonged use of oral contraceptives and cervical cancer. Her research connected the use of contraceptive pills containing steroids with cervical dysplasia, which is often a precursor of cervical cancer.

In her most noted work in this field, Stern studied cells cast off from the lining of the cervix and discovered that a normal cell goes through 250 distinct stages of cell progression before reaching an advanced stage of cervical cancer. This prompted the development of diagnostic techniques and screening instruments to detect the cancer in its early stages. Her research helped make cervical cancer, with its slow rate of metastasis, one of the types of cancer that can be successfully treated by prophylactic measures (i.e., excision of abnormal tissue).

Stern continued her teaching and research into the late 1970s, despite undergoing chemotherapy for stomach cancer. She died of the disease in 1980.

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