One More Pioneering Woman in Science You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

By Ellen Elliott

It is a regrettable fact that science has historically undervalued the contributions of women. Elizabeth Stern is probably one of the most significant physician-scientists who worked at the interface of epidemiology and cancer in the mid-20th century, but it is unlikely you have ever heard her name. You won’t read about Stern’s research in medical textbooks, or find any symposiums or departments dedicated to her memory. But her groundbreaking research led the way to our modern understanding of the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer.

Elizabeth Stern was born September 19, 1915 in Cobalt, Ontario. She was the fifth of eight children born to George and Sarah Stern, who emigrated from Poland to escape growing anti-Semitism and political unrest in Eastern Europe. She graduated from the University of Toronto School of Medicine on June 8, 1939, at the age of 23. While at the University of Toronto she met Solomon Shankman, a doctoral student in chemistry, and they married in 1940. They soon immigrated to Los Angeles, California, where Stern completed residency training in pathology at Cedars of Lebanon and Good Samaritan Hospitals in 1946.

From 1950 to 1960 she served as the director of laboratories and research at the Los Angeles Cancer Detection Center. In 1961 Stern was hired by the University of California Los Angeles (U.C.L.A) School of Medicine as the chief of the Cytology Laboratory, and began her research lab in the Department of Pathology. In 1963 her laboratory was transferred to the U.C.L.A. School of Public Health. Stern’s former colleague and distinguished cytopathology expert Dorothy Rosenthal commented that, “The Department of Pathology didn’t want to keep [Stern] … because the Chair did not want to fill a full-time faculty position with a cytopathologist.”

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